• Matt Harlos

Unattended vs Attended Retail

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Last week, we went into the debate of Markets vs Vending, but now we’re going to combine the two into the broader scope of Unattended Retail. Today, we’re going to discuss the differences, pros, and cons of Unattended vs Attended Retail.

Let’s start with what we’re the most familiar with: Unattended Retail.

Unattended Retail: Pros and Cons

We’ll start with the pros - but first, let’s take a look at the components of Unattended Retail. Micro markets have brought a transformation in convenience to consumers. From an operator efficiency standpoint, it also brings a huge saving on labor vs traditional vending. But that doesn’t mean vending isn’t valuable. A vending machine is a self contained, 24/7 storefront. It extends the hours of commerce beyond the usual 9 to 5.

It would be ridiculous to have someone monitoring a vending machine, but a market could possibly benefit from an attendee. One example that comes to mind for attended markets is alcohol sales. Currently, there are few states that have a process for using a digital license to prove that you are of age to purchase alcohol. Most states would still very much require a physical attendant for any location selling alcohol of any variety.

For the most part, outside of niche cases like the one above, a market doesn’t need to be physically monitored. Technology takes care of that burden for us. A market is loaded with technological solutions for tracking sales, purchasing product, and monitoring security.

Security is a constant concern for markets. While Attended Retail mitigates the risk of theft with a physical presence, micro markets must rely on cameras or other technology.

“You have to rely on this remote vigilance”

Cecil Ledesma, VP Strategic Partnerships

When we look at vending and all things Unattended, you have to have that security in place to be able to offer those services. There’s no one there helping the consumer. It’s hands off, unlike traditional retail where everything is very hands on.

But those are still pros. The efficiency of labor is not having to have a person monitoring.

“Technology allows operators to have that unattended location.”

Evan Jarecki, Chief Customer Officer

Micro markets bridge a gap. They’re often described as unattended convenience stores, and they come very close to being just that. The next step above a market is a c-store, and it’s where we see the first shift from Unattended to Attended Retail.

Above the c-store sits the grocery store, along with general retail and stores that handle both aspects of grocery and non-food goods (think Target or WalMart). These locations serve different markets, and are different (but adjacent) industries, but have some very similar practices when it comes to supply chain and product merchandising.

Attended Retail: Pros and Cons

Now we’ll flip the coin, and look at Attended Retail. What’s the biggest pro of having attendees?

Instant gratification. A customer with a question can always find the answer, even if the question seems fairly innocuous. Sure, you can find these answers through your phone, but a person can be faster.

“The biggest pro of Attended Retail is the specialty source of all knowledge, the human empathy.”

Evan Jarecki, Chief Customer Officer

There are cons to that physical presence, however. Specifically, the checkout experience at traditional retail locations. It is the final gate through which all customers must pass, and yet it can very easily become a bottleneck that slows down the purchasing process and frustrates consumers.

Retailers may suffer from customers not completing a purchase, or leaving unsatisfied with their experience, when there’s a giant line at the checkout. So, how can retailers strike the perfect balance?

Let’s look at an example:

If you’ve ever visited the Apple Store, you know that every employee acts as a source of knowledge and assistance, while also being a place of purchase.

“The checkout is the most painful part of the retail experience.”

Evan Jarecki, Chief Customer Officer

The biggest pros of traditional retail, in its current state, is absolutely the human element. A living source of knowledge that can answer relevant questions about products or services that would take time to find on your own.

But the biggest con is checkout. A barrier that makes the instant gratification of shopping in-person not so instant.

“Is it all about technology? I think it’s a mix.”

Cecil Ledesma, VP Strategic Partnerships

How can some of this be mitigated? Is there a way to create a hybrid process, with some parts of a store being Attended, and others being self-serve Unattended environments? It’s about a knowledgeable use of technology, in areas that attended staff may not be useful, but still within a more traditional retail space.

We live in a 24/7 economy. Think of the last time the internet went down or got slow. It was the end of the world, wasn’t it? How did we get to that point, when there used to be so much more that was accepted. Why has the experience changed over time?

“People are used to serving themselves, they just need the tools to make it happen.”

Cecil Ledesma, VP Strategic Partnerships

But there’s a role for both people and technology. Next time you’re making an expensive purchase, you may very well prefer getting expert advice from a knowledgeable individual.

Blending Attended and Unattended

There’s a scale to it, though. When you want to buy a snack, it can be a very quick transaction. Compare this to something you’ve thought about for a long time, like a car or a house. You want that human expertise to guide you to the right buying decision.

That’s also the negative side of the ‘used car salesman’ where it becomes a pure transaction, possibly a negative one, on a purchase that you’ll have for years.

A good hybrid is Tesla, with Attended education centers with experts where you can’t actually buy except through the website. The person is there to answer your questions, but their one and only sales tool is the Tesla website. You can also use that exact same website in your own home to purchase a car from your couch, without any human interaction.

“There’s never been a better time for this.”

Cecil Ledesma, VP Strategic Partnerships

Our industry has a huge head start on the unattended side. We’re starting to nail down all of the special skills of running an unattended store, not just a snack spot. The standards and efficiency that our industry has already developed can serve as a good example of how those same things can be invested in current retail solutions to build new Unattended experiences.

Where do you see the Unattended Retail industry going? What new things are you trying with your business that explore different ways of selling than traditional micro markets or vending?

As a consumer, how would you like to see Attended Retail locations adapt more Unattended technology and methodology?