Why Self-Driving Taxis Point to the Future of Retail

The potential of automated end-to-end services in driving, while significant, are by no means restricted to transport.

Self-driving Uber cars are the final disruptive nail in the traditional taxi model coffin, as the company started live trials last month, cutting out the middle man entirely. 

The potential of automated end-to-end services in driving, while significant, are by no means restricted to transport. The real revolution they herald presents significant opportunity for other sectors, one such, being retail.   

Products as services

The philosophy behind the self-driving taxi is simple in theory, at least: to cut out the middle man by evolving products into services. This is an idea gaining traction fast. For proof look no further than the level of investment in and consumer uptake of smart thermostats like Nest and Hive to control householders’ central heating. 

Or, in the hospitality sector, Yelp Reservations: the free online bookings service for restaurateurs launched two years ago. Meanwhile online retail giant Amazon just started offering a new one-hour food delivery service. Automated services such as these take advantage of a number of powerful and compelling benefits.    

Augmented services through automation

For retailers, automated end-to-end services have the power to transform in-store experiences in a number of different ways.  By harnessing narrow AI tasks through machine learning algorithms, automation can help predict the best next course of action and eliminate the need for repetitive tasks. Incremental improvements can be made, informed by repetitive task management analysis from large data sets gathered over time. 

Automation can thus reduce operational costs and increase efficiency, using simulation and continuous process improvement to reduce wasted resources and time. At lingerie boutique Undiz Machine, shoppers use in-store screens to browse, select then request products that are then quickly delivered via an automated in-store delivery capsule system. But this doesn’t render the sales assistant redundant – it just means they can focus more on the aspect of delivery. Automation can build internal transparency, too. 

Retailers are able to better track their products through data gathered by IoT and sensors, get an inventory more quickly, reduce errors and otherwise improve their overall understanding of their systems and processes in-store. Personalisation is another area in which automated end-to-end services can really deliver in a retail environment. 

At tailors Les Nouveaux Ateliers, for example, scanners are installed in fitting rooms, able to take body measurements. This automated process is completed far faster than if done by hand and, in turn, the data gathered enables the retailer to better address their individual needs in-store.  

The human, social aspect of automation

With menial and repetitive tasks reduced, the role of the sales assistant is seeing a fundamental change. Retail staff and their practices are becoming more personalised and, as they become so, meeting and greeting, explaining and presenting are the new priority.  

Of course not so long ago, automated end-to-end services were seen by some in retailing – shop floor employees, especially - as a threat. But a retailer’s ability to deploy automation in order to shift the emphasis of in-store staff from customer sales to customer experience does not necessarily equate to fewer jobs. In fact sales assistants – or, rather, a new breed of ‘experience assistants’ – will become more important than ever. 

The reason for this is the fact that customers arrive in-store better informed by the wealth of information now readily available at their fingertips online. Old fashioned hard sales tactics – even in car showrooms - just don’t wash any more. Customers want assistance – not to be confronted with a pushy salesperson. 

And this is why car brands like Hyundai are now amongst those leading the way. It’s experience-driven, next generation car dealership outlet, Hyundai Rockar, is not located out of town but at Bluewater shopping centre.

Services as experiences

Focusing on customer interaction will also turn sales assistants into ‘experience assistants’. Staff servicing the Genius Bar at Apple are a great example of this and at its recently opened new flagship store in San Francisco - complete with an upgraded and less formal Genius Grove – Apple now also employs a new breed of specialist customer experience assistant, known as Creative Pros and is even dropping the word ‘store’ from its name. 

Last but not least, automation across all aspects of a retail outlet can make the in-store environment more entertaining. Entertainment allows customers to get closer than ever to the brands they love and an ideal platform for this is the physical retail environment. This is clearly reflected in Google-owned YouTube’s decision to launch a bricks and mortar retail outlet in London called Creator Store. Using this new physical retail concept, online video stars will sell merchandise to the public.

An investment well worth it

That’s not to say investment isn’t needed to support automation in retail. Cost will be involved, not just in training but also investment in the technology required to deliver in-store automation of different parts of the retail process. But, ultimately, automation will facilitate a reduction of prices as retail spaces become smaller as a result of the growing power of tech. 

The closest any retailer has got to harnessing all of the different ways in which automated end-to-end services can – and will – revolutionise the retail experience is probably Apple. It’s no longer a store selling ‘things’, but a brand that enhances creativity through its product, offering an experience. However, given the exponential speed at which technology continues to develop, early adopters and start-ups, unfettered by legacy systems and out-dated thinking are well-positioned to benefit. 

Long-term success, meanwhile, will come from cultivating the vision to harness and explore the rapidly-evolving world of automation and make the necessary adjustments - to innovation, to customer engagement and to employee training and development strategies, alike. 

Dan Baczynski, experience designer and Jocelyn Deborne, executive producer of digital media at leading retail and brand consultancy FITCH.

Image Credit: Moyan Brenn / Flickr 


Dan comes from a scientific background whose taste for new technologies led him down the path of interaction design.


Jocelyn is an expert in interactive production and user centred design.