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Omni-being: striving against digital dualism

by Tom Neri , 31.03.2015

On a recent Silicon Valley business trip, a couple of colleagues and I took a break for lunch in Palo Alto. The inviting 72 degree sunny day for this northeast winter-sufferer made it hard to resist a casual neighborhood café with outdoor seating. Our hostess quickly sat us down and deposited our server on the table; that is, a self-serve menu tablet which would serve as our order taker and cashier. Our only other human interaction came from what was essentially a food runner/server, and a drop-by from someone obviously in management role who checked on our satisfaction with everything. In fact all was quite easy and satisfying, with the exception of wanting to probe a bit more about the specials, identify alternatives to fries on the side, and get directions to the restroom.

All in all pretty cool, and something fitting in more at a Stanford student haunt and millennial hub. (There was no lacking for spare device chargers and charging stations). The self-payment process could not have been easier, on our own time preference—no need for flagging down a server—easy as or easier than any NYC taxi payment.

It’s more than just food

My Palo Alto lunch remained top of mind as I met with industry leaders at IIR’s All Payments Expo, product managers, tech developers and venture capital companies to grapple with how to deliver to consumer’s retail experiences and payment processes that are engaging, integrated, personalized, seamless, and secure.

It is an exciting and creative time for retail and payments, but also challenging and disconcerting. Margins are tight, consumers are fickle and alternate payment scenarios abound. It is with this backdrop that I began to contemplate whether or not consumers, broadly, are warmly embracing further detachment from the server/sales assist in an in-store experience. Has the service aspect become a lost art, and less of a perceived value but rather a bother?

Perhaps we can find some insight in a recent article quoting Nathan Jurgenson, a New York-based sociologist and researcher for the messaging platform Snapchat, who suggests the perception that online relationships are somehow less real than their physical counterparts exemplifies what he calls “digital dualism.” Contemporary identities and relationships are no more or less authentic in either space. “We’re coming to terms with there being just one reality and digital is part of it, not any less real or true,” Jurgenson said. “What you do online and what you do face-to-face are completely interwoven.”

Convenience vs. Efficiency

Arguably, part of the upscale dining and shopping experience is the attraction of being waited on to your every whim. But indications across retail and dining categories reveal that consumers care less and less about having service assistance and would rather go it alone in perusing store or menu options and selections, as long as the overall experience meets the consumer need. The lunch in Palo Alto is actually part of an increasingly mainstream alternate casual dining experience, now offered in Buffalo Wild Wings and Olive Garden. In these and other such cases it is likely that dimensions such as ambience, physical amenities, clientele, product quality, pricing, and convenience are all more critical than the human service interaction, as long as key necessities are met and the requisite service needs are met.

Putting aside the psychological and sociological debate about the further loss of human interaction, personal engagement and the ability to forge relationships, the business question is, does detachment of the human element enhance and/or deliver a more desirable, or at least more convenient, experience for consumers in the emerging generations? Further, are businesses best served in optimizing sales potential and delivering on their brand promise for an optimal experience as human engagement diminishes? Certainly in the online and mobile environment consumers are increasingly more comfortable with that detachment; they can shop and dine concurrently in a bricks & mortar, mobile and online environs.

We are officially Omni-beings in a perpetual Omni-channel mode!

 For more information, please contact Tom Neri at tom.neri@gfk.com.