What Automated Stores Mean for Mobile Marketing

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While digital retailing continues to encroach on physical retail’s territory, face-to-face shopping is not going down without a fight. Just as traditional business models must account for new technology and trends favoring automation, the processes that support those models such as mobile marketing must adapt to the times.

Physical Retailing for Introverts

Earlier this past January, Amazon opened its first Amazon Go automated store in Seattle, Washington. In case you are unfamiliar with the concept, an automated store is exactly as it sounds: a store with cameras, sensors, and microphones instead of cashiers and checkout lanes. Simply walk in, put the items you want in a bag, walk out, and AI-driven machines do the rest. The concept is similar to automats around the turn of the 20th century, but instead of vending machines, produce and foodstuffs are sitting on shelves, ripe for the picking as your Amazon account is charged their worth after you leave the store.



Though Amazon has popularized the term “Just Walk Out” shopping, they are not the only ones trying this model out. Walmart’s “Project Kepler” is their answer to Amazon Go in the United States while Moby Mart, the Shanghai-based mobile brainchild of Swedish startup Wheelys, Hefei University of Technology, and tech firm Himalafy, takes the concept a step further by letting the store come to you.

As how we shop changes, the strategies stores use to get customers through their doors must also adapt to a new kind of environment. Where more customer data is available than ever before, Barry Nolan, the chief marketing officer for mobile marketing automation company Swrve, suggests there are not as many opportunities to effectively reach out to shoppers as there ought to be with automated stores:


“First and foremost, the rise of automated stores means more data, because the very interactions supported by Amazon Go rely heavily on vast amounts of real-time, in-the-moment data. Marketers must be able to collect, analyze and integrate these new sources of data into their marketing campaigns and messages in order to establish and maintain meaningful relationships with customers.

“This new retail framework also impacts the time that mobile marketers have to make connections. Consumers gain valuable time by skipping the checkout, but marketers lose previous seconds from the “mobile moment of opportunity” to communicate with customers as they browse and buy. “Real time” in the Amazon Go model is honest-to-goodness real time, here and now, before the customer leaves.”


With marketing, timing and tone are everything. Too soon, and the customer will more than likely ignore the message. Too late, and you have already lost the sale. Too passive, and the customer would not sense urgency. Too assertive, and you might offend their sensibilities. Where social media marketing must strike this balance, posts can still be written in advance, released, and shared based on algorithms that follow specific individuals’ habits and viewership as well as those of entire demographics. Now with something like automated shopping, these marketer-customer interactions have to happen within an even smaller window.

As Nolan asks, “If technology is able to monitor each and every consumer activity, would a ‘timely’ message that tries to influence a consumer’s choice as he or she considers a particular coffee brand, for instance, feel helpful…or creepy?” It is one thing dealing with an overly enthusiastic store clerk. It is another entirely to be alone in a store and your phone is asking awfully specific questions about the product you are looking at.

So what’s a humble marketer to do when all you want to do is help a customer find your product?


‘Just Right’ Marketing for ‘Just Walk Out’ Shopping

Interestingly enough, a Pew Research Center survey from 2016 suggests that up to half of Americans are willing to “share personal information or permit surveillance in return for getting something of perceived value.” Over half of those surveyed were fine with workplace surveillance cameras as well as sharing health information on websites used to help manage patient records and coordinate with your doctor remotely online.

When it comes to targeted ads on social media or experimental technology like smart thermostats that adjust the temperature of your house depending on your movements and temperature zones, people are not as thrilled to share this information. While only 33% and 27% of respondents respectively find sharing information with social media networks and smart thermostats acceptable, over half oppose that kind of data-mining.

The survey cites a few reasons why people might favor one form of digital information sharing over the other:

  • The initial benefit might be appreciated, but continued follow-up would be annoying.
  • Vulnerability concerns due to the threat of scammers and hackers.
  • Profiling data and tracking physical location are both widely considered creepy.
  • Concerns that data collected for one purpose is then used for another, often more invasive one.

Regardless of how the information is obtained, the theme of consumer hesitance seems to revolve around distrust for whoever is gathering the data and whether or not the consumer believes that data is used for its intended purpose. For instance, a security camera in the office to find who’s been stealing everyone’s pens is a welcome deterrent, but a thermostat knowing when to turn on the heat in your bedroom as you walk in makes you wonder who else knows you’re about to go to sleep.

What then is the right balance of marketing to take advantage of the automated store concept without making your customers feel taken advantage of? The key is to build their trust and to do so genuinely.

Here are some points to consider:

  • Build trust with your customers. Though the technology might change, the fundamentals remain the same: good business is built on trust between the company and customer. There are plenty of resources on how to strengthen relationships with your customers through marketing and with consumer interest in how things are made and how your business affects them, their community, and the environment at an all-time high, those potential connections are accessible and in-demand as ever.
  • Put yourself into your customers’ shoes when determining what information to collect. Of course, you would hope that a customer will react the way you want them to with any of your marketing campaigns, but how would you react walking into someone else’s business to a vibrating phone, almost judging you for eyeing up that package of cookies on the shelf? While a lot of people might think such snap-marketing is invasive and creepy, a welcoming message as they enter the store that includes coupons or sale information curated based on previous trips could be a lot better received. Again, the customer is more inclined to share information if they know it benefits them. Making them feel like they are being observed down every aisle like a lab rat is not the best way to make that impression.
  • Be upfront with the usage of collected data. Even if it’s included in your app’s terms of use agreement, posting signs at the front of the store explaining how automated shopping works and how and what information is gathered helps build customer trust as well. Much like a doctor jabbing you with a needle for a blood draw and walking out of the room with a full syringe, the interaction would be better off having been warned first, actively consenting, and knowing why everything is happening as it is. Perhaps dramatic, some people hold onto their data as dearly as their bodily humors — to them, the fingerprints they leave in the digital world are just as intimate as those on their hands.

While you can make use of these points before creating an automated store of your own (maybe your social media marketing philosophy could use a tune-up), cashierless stores are still widely untested by the public. Perhaps the model is just a fad that seems interesting on paper, yet people still feel uneasy without the familiarity of human workers to finalize their purchases. On the other hand, this could be the beginning of a hybridizing trend between digital and physical retailing that will spread beyond convenience stores and revolutionize the way we go out to shop.

One thing is for certain: no matter how automated shopping becomes, marketing for and to other human beings will always require the warmth of humanity behind every word. After all, there’s a difference between watching someone and watching over them. Personally, I’d much rather have someone who cares watching over me than some stranger simply looming, hidden from view, whispering targeted ads in my direction.


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