What is the point of going to a store?

The news media is aflame with news of Amazon's $13.7B acquisition of Whole Foods. In a companion piece, Kurt Schlosser revisited his tour of a Whole Foods 365 store from last fall. Schlosser mused: "The fear that Amazon’s prowess in artificial intelligence and machine learning and robotics could replace human grocery workers is also a real one." It's definitely concerning that this is yet another in a long line of traditional mid-skill jobs that are heading for automation.

With the statement "replace human grocery workers" Schlosser assumes that the only significant role for humans in this system is to process transactions and bag your items. It's worth examining this assumption because it helps uncover some of the other dynamics that contribute to the success of Whole Foods. Once freed from the burden of processing transactions, is there some new person-to-person dynamic waiting to be created?

I like the fact that the people at my local Red Apple Market know me and ask how my kids are doing. They also make useful recommendations that are highly relevant because they know me. One might argue that a computer could do this job even more effectively, but that's another assumption. I like the social interaction and the connection with people. Isn't this another example of the massive success that Whole Foods has had?

The user researcher in me wants to know: Is my behavior now considered aberrant? Are customers actually asking for a person-free grocery shopping experience? Or has the desire of our technology-obsessed society to make everything "more efficient" gone too far, to an illogical conclusion?

As one example, smaller hardware chains seem to have embraced the importance of employees as experts who are there to recommend. In my area, if one wants to get trusted advice, one goes to McLendon Hardware or Town Center Hardware rather than one of the big box stores.

--Kent

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