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Amazon Vs. eBay: Humans In The Rise Of Retail Automation

21/12/2016 16:58 GMT | Updated 21/12/2016 16:58 GMT
Cristian Baitg via Getty Images

Online megastores, Amazon and eBay, are both experimenting with bringing their unique online models in-store. But these two digital retailers seem to have very different ideas about the role of humans in the future of their brand identity.

Amazon has announced they will launch a cashless convenience store next year in Seattle, bringing its one-click ordering strategy to a brick-and-mortar location using their 'Just walk out technology'. Similar to their online model, when shopping at Amazon Go there won't be any need for human interaction. Simply scan your phone with the Amazon app to enter, and anything you pick up is automatically added to your virtual cart, and then removed if items are placed back on the shelf. The system will use RFID technology combined with advanced machine learning, computer vision, and artificial intelligence.

On the one hand, this sounds like the next obvious step forward from the self-service checkout kiosks many have already become accustomed to, even though they still require an actual person to approve or fix something half the time. While the aim with Amazon Go is convenience, completely taking the human store representative out of the shopping experience is a bold move. Some might find it concerning, troubling or even dystopic to consider that humans are actively coming up with ways to phase out the need for humans. The obvious benefactor is the retailer. While it might save you a couple of minutes or mean you don't have to stop texting to look up, it intends to save Amazon all the overheads of employment. And there is no guarantee that the prices would go down to reflect this savings, with speculation that the technology infrastructure behind a system like this might some actually push prices up.

Articles are already surfacing with lists of how your average shopper can hack the system and walk away with free goods. And what happens when someone drops the spaghetti sauce in aisle four and it gets all over another shopper who threatens to start a fight? Far from effortless, it sounds like, without humans, it could easily turn into the Wild West.

Another ecommerce retailer, eBay, is trying their hand at the high street, but taking the opposite approach, promoting the human aspect of their brand. With a seasonal, 'emotionally-powered' pop-up store in London's Covent Garden, the eBay store is also cashless. It relies on a mobile app, uses technologies including augmented reality, QR codes, and emotional data sensors, and aims to inspire shoppers to reconnect with the emotional spirit of giving. A virtual shop, there are no products, just images of products on walls or projected in 3D, and live social media feeds that share customer recommendations, relationships and moments. The pop-up also includes a message on building a social conscious, and being a part of a community.

Ebay enrolled Lightwave, an emotions technology company, to install facial recognition and biometric sensor technology to identify which products provoke the strongest feelings of giving, producing personalised emotion reports. This data was used to create an 'emotional tapestry', a visualisation of the emotions of the shoppers in real-time.

While these two retailers practice similar models in ecommerce, their approach to reaching customers outside of a virtual world couldn't be more different. The concept of Amazon Go, for all its convenience, is purely transactional. It lacks any effort to connect with customers. They may own the entire end-to-end system behind the store's transactions, but this is potentially at the cost of customer loyalty and trust, not to mention all the jobs that this model will effect as it ripples through other businesses already struggling to compete with Amazon.

Meanwhile, eBay is giving customers something to do, think about and try, providing a unique and memorable experience that raises brand awareness and puts a human face to their digital empire.

While automation in some areas of retail is inevitable, like moving towards a cashless society it appears, one thing that isn't going to change is the human need to connect. People are increasingly choosing to support and buy brands that they feel reflect their personal values, and seeking out opportunities to have sharable, emotional experiences. Amazon Go might be on to something regarding point of purchase innovation (or lack of one), but eBay have already planted the seeds of longevity and interest by providing people an experience that says that they care about their customers, community, and the humans who make their brand possible.