How do “autonomous shopping systems” change the future of shopping?
Technologies are becoming ever smarter, able to make decisions and complete tasks on behalf of consumers. For example, smart fridges recommend recipes and make shopping lists by scanning the items in one’s fridge while considering one’s dietary preferences. Whereas those systems offer distinct benefits to consumers by removing the decision-making process, autonomous shopping systems challenge psychological consumption motives and ingrained human–machine relationships. Consumers may be reluctant to forgo decision autonomy, their self-regulatory resources may be depleted, and feelings of decision satisfaction may not ensue. In their new article in the Journal of Retailing, Emanuel de Bellis and Gita Johar analyze barriers to consumer adoption of autonomous shopping systems, suggest ways to overcome them, and discuss the impact of autonomous technologies for consumers and society.
Profound changes in the shopping process
Autonomous shopping systems offer a series of functional benefits to consumers by reducing or even eliminating the need for human decision making. Whereas in the example of Samsung’s Family Hub the systems’ autonomy is limited to single tasks (e.g., reordering of specific items), more advanced autonomous systems will be able to take over increasingly larger and more complex shopping decisions. For example, the system may choose apparel for a customer based on information on the customer’s previous experiences, the customer’s momentary feelings, the choices of similar customers, and environmental factors such as weather. Early forms (so-called recommender systems) have been associated with reduced search costs, more efficient purchase decisions, and better decision making. More recent forms promise even higher degrees of functionality, such as time savings, cost savings, and unprecedented levels of convenience. At the same time, autonomous shopping systems challenge psychological consumption motives and ingrained human–machine relationships due to the delegation of decisions and tasks to technology.
Analyzing barriers to consumer adoption
Regardless of the benefits they offer, new technologies frequently struggle in the marketplace, demonstrating the difficulty of convincing consumers to adopt technologies that are novel and unknown to them. Barriers to adoption are one reason for the high failure rate, as they prevent consumers from trying out new technologies. Based on a cross-disciplinary literature review drawing from research in marketing, psychology, and human–computer interaction and the integration of re-analyzed qualitative data the authors examine barriers to adoption of autonomous shopping systems.
How to overcome cultural and psychological barriers
Drawing from ongoing ICI research (Schweitzer, Gollnhofer, and de Bellis 2020), the article discusses four types of psychological barriers along with distinct cultural barriers and suggests ways to overcome these barriers. Figure 1 provides a simplified decision tree that indicates how autonomous shopping systems differ from related technologies and when consumers tend to adopt these systems. It does so along the four main sections of the article: autonomous shopping systems, enablers of adoption, barriers to adoption, and overcoming barriers to adoption.
1. Control and autonomy
Consumer research has shown that perceived control – the belief that outcomes depend on one’s own actions instead of external forces – is an important driver in consumption. Consumers’ perception of losing control may be the most evident and best documented barrier to adopting autonomous technologies, with multiple studies demonstrating this effect in varying contexts. The effect seems more pronounced in the West due to an increased desire for control in Western cultures. To tackle the barrier of control, marketers may emphasize the control-increasing aspects of autonomous shopping systems while highlighting meaningful activities that can be pursued during the time freed up by use of these systems.
2. Meaningful experiences
Even daily chores and mundane tasks like cooking or cleaning can provide meaning to people. In the context of meaningfulness, one has to consider that the way that things get done, and not just whether they get done, matters to people. Autonomous shopping systems endanger meaningful experiences, which may inhibit the adoption of these systems. This is especially pronounced in countries that place more emphasis on meaning and hard work (de Bellis, Johar, and Schweitzer 2020). One key to overcoming this psychological barrier involves placing special emphasis on strengthening the brand of autonomous technologies and promoting brand communities as this provides new experiences to consumers and greater community engagement.
3. Individuality and Identity
Autonomous technologies may also pose more substantial threats to consumers’ individuality. In an extreme form, autonomous technologies may produce equal, uniform consumers who think and behave similarly (Schweitzer, Gollnhofer, and de Bellis 2020). For example, individuals may adjust toward each other due to the use of aggregated consumer data that evens out the peculiarities of individuals. In response, consumers may refuse specific decisions made by autonomous shopping systems and eventually discard (or not even adopt) the technology to regain (or keep) their decision-making power. To address the barrier of individuality, companies may cater to consumers’ feelings of uniqueness by employing mass customization and personalization, two one-to-one marketing concepts that both aim to achieve an experience tailored to consumers (de Bellis et al. 2019).
4. Social connectedness
Consumption caters to the need to belong and is able to strengthen bonds through interpersonal and communal aspect of shopping and consumption. For example, grocery shopping typically offers ample opportunities for social interaction between consumers and with cashiers, with retailers starting to offer “chatter checkout” lines to help customers socialize on their shopping trips. As shopping systems become increasingly autonomous and consumers do not necessarily need to leave their homes for shopping, these systems hamper consumers’ opportunities to socially connect and bond with others (Schweitzer, Gollnhofer, and de Bellis 2020). Social connectedness can be promoted, for example, by the brand community interventions mentioned in context of creating meaningful experiences.
Autonomous Shopping Systems: Identifying and Overcoming Barriers to Consumer Adoption
in: Journal of Retailing, 2020, 96 (1), 74–87
(Emanuel de Bellis and Gita Venkataramani Johar)
Personalizing the Customization Experience: A Matching Theory of Mass Customization Interfaces and Cultural Information Processing
Journal of Marketing Research, 2019, 56 (6), pp. 1050-1065
(Emanuel de Bellis, Christian Hildebrand, Kenichi Ito, AndreasHerrmann, Bernd Schmitt)
Consumer Perceptions of Autonomous Shopping Systems
Working paper, 2019
(Nicola Schweitzer, Johanna F. Gollnhofer, Emanuel de Bellis)
The Protestant Work Ethic, Consumers’ Quest for Meaning, and the Adoption of Autonomous Products
Working paper, 2020
(Emanuel de Bellis, Gita Venkataramani Johar, Nicola Schweitzer)