Consumer behavior naturally shifts with technological change. Once upon a time, we used only cash. There was another time not long ago when a customer could write a check at the cashier’s till – and not irritate everyone in line behind her. Today, as AI-driven devices such as Alexa and Google Home become more commonplace in households, consumers are utilizing the technology to shop. We’ve come a long way since handwritten receipts and manual card imprinters.
At the same time, retailers are trying to get more customers through the doors by investing in virtual reality technology. Enhancing the in-store experience, the logic goes, will keep the physical stores relevant. For instance, mega fast-fashion retailers H&M and Zara have created augmented-reality features designed to draw customers into stores. But how important are new gadgets and AR events to the customer experience? Based on the results of our recent survey, the success of these technologies – and the retailers investing in them – lies in their ability to provide convenience.
This past spring we conducted a survey of 515 US consumers ages 18 and older about where they shop, what they buy, and what they buy with. Some of the results surprised us. First, e-commerce shows few signs of upending brick-and-mortar retail altogether. Of all our respondents, 58 percent still consider in-store to be their primary shopping channel – and 73 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds are satisfied with that experience.
When we examine what developments respondents are most excited for, the overall response favored any tech that visibly improved convenience for consumers. For the younger generation, especially, that includes virtual reality. The survey found that nearly one in four respondents (23 percent) report using an AI-driven device at least once a month for shopping. Still, it is a gradual adjustment, as nearly half of respondents (46 percent) report knowing about the shopping capabilities of these devices but do not actually use them for their own shopping.
How will new developments shape future behavior? Looking ahead to the next few years, the survey gauged consumers’ feelings about automated shoppers. Overall, it found that people do not like the idea of robots dominating the shopping experience, especially if robots were to replace human employees in stores. However, younger respondents are slightly more trusting of robots, with 40 percent saying they would let an automated bot do their shopping if it understood their preferences, compared with 24 percent overall.
The desire for more convenience also seems to inform consumers’ payment preferences. A huge majority of respondents – 88 percent – still pay mainly with a physical card. However, they reported using digital, mobile, and speech-recognition devices to order items they use every day. Perhaps it’s easier to say, “Alexa, reorder my last dog food shipment,” than it is to make a pitstop at the pet store.
Even though for most consumers AI-driven retail remains hypothetical – less than a quarter had seen it in action – 40 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds would entrust their shopping to a robot if they were confident it understood their preferences. Again, new tech becomes more valuable when it makes life more convenient. So Gen Z consumers – and everyone – can pick up the latest trends, or pet supplies, at lightning speed and the whisper-thin tap of a touchscreen. With or without robots.