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What is a place without people?

Automated food space, glorified vending machine, fastER food–whatever you call it, it may be the future of how we grab on the go. But what happens when you replace a friendly face with an interface… will it work?
It’s no surprise that in the age of instant gratification, ease and speed are essential parts of the customer experience. People want goods on demand, on their terms; companies want to increase purchase volume and efficiency. Seems we’re all eager to maximize convenience. From humble beginning of tap-and-pay, to mobile payment, to self-checkout, to the one-click buy.
The newest trends retailers are gearing up for? Complete purchase automation. No more waiting in line, speaking with sales associates, swiping your card, tapping your phone, or counting your (gasp) cash. Just grab your stuff and walk out the door. Leading the next wave is Amazon Go, a talk-of-the-town Amazon’s cashier-less grocery store. And Eatsa, an automated healthy fast food restaurant, based in San Francisco. At Eatsa, you place your order directly from your phone, or via an in-store iPad, then pick up your food from a temperature-controlled cubby with your name, without interacting with anyone.
David Friedberg, Eatsa’s founder, noted in The New York Times that “Over time, we want to automate more and more to increase speed and reduce cost, so we create a food product that’s much cheaper and also happens to be healthy.” It’s hard to argue with the value of cheaper, healthier food. Of an easier checkout experience. But at what cost? What is the value to a brand of a smile? A recommended daily special? Someone knowing your name?
Yesterday, I went into a local coffee shop. Dead simple order: iced coffee with milk. Took less than 30 seconds to prepare. At checkout, the cashier complimented me on my necklace–a gold dragon that I bought with my family while travelling in Hong Kong as a teenager. I told her the quick story of how it came to be. I’m certain that coffee tasted better. I’m certain I’ll return.
Barbara Kahn, a Wharton marketing professor and the director of Jay H. Baker Retailing Center, explains that “the touch and feel of the products and sales associates are important in the purchase process.” Those little moments and conversations when you engage with a sales associate, barista, or cashier contribute to a complete brand experience, building positive sentiment towards a brand. Technology has yet to become capable of eliciting the same depth of attachment, as it tends to be a flatter, single-sense engagement. We also have much higher expectations that technology will work, so the bar to bring unexpected joy is much greater
Just as places define people, people define places. If people spend money but not time in places, the greater value of that place (and the brand it represents) suffers. It’s role in our communities declines. It risks becoming simply a mechanism, not a true experience.
Change is inevitable, and as expectations evolve, we will continue to move towards speedier transactions. Brands must work to identify the true value of people for their places of business, and strike the right balance between the efficiency of automation and the experience of humans. And never underestimate the power of humans to surprise and delight.

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