For retail owners, it is crucial to deliver high-quality and innovative service to stay competitive. High-quality service is a valuable asset since it leads to customer satisfaction and loyalty, which contributes to the financial performance of the company . The so-called service encounter, concerning the direct interaction between customer and organization at the moment of service delivery, is central to high-quality service .
Humanoid service robots are one of the most dramatic innovations in the retail service encounter . Softbanks’ Pepper is a typical example of a possible retail innovation: a 120 centimeters humanoid with a friendly face, moving arms including hands and fingers, and a human-like locomotion. Even though humanoid service robots like Pepper could play an important role in a high-quality service encounter , empirical knowledge about the effects on customers and store employees is still lacking .
Previous studies show that the vast majority of research done on robots in retail has an conceptual nature, mainly focuses on the first adoption phase of consumers, and has therefore paid little or no attention to, for example, the role of store employees . The empirical research that has been done has mostly been conducted in controlled environments, which makes the practical usefulness for retailers limited and misses the complexity of a real-life setting . Therefore, a field experiment in an actual store is crucial.
What happens if you measure the added value of a service robot in an uncontrolled store setting?
We conducted a field experiment where we placed Pepper in an actual grocery store during a 3-week period. Pepper was located at the entrance of the store, welcoming customers and suggesting information about the app, store discounts or meal inspiration. We asked store visitors about their robot experience: if they noted the robot, how they perceived the interaction (if applicable), and their idea of how Pepper could add value to the store.
To complement the data, we asked store employees about their experience with working next to Pepper. We used a structured interview to obtain this data.
– Customers
Out of 139 customers, 46 customers (33.1%) did not notice the robot, 43 customers (30.9%) noticed the robot but did not stop at the robot, the other 50 customers (36%) noticed the robot and stopped. It is important to mention that this percentages only contain the customers we interviewed. To obtain a more accurate stopping rate, we counted 8 times for 15 minutes the customers entering the store, and how many of them interacted with Pepper.
The average stopping rate during these days was 14,7%.
The customers interviewed gave us interesting insights. 35 (25.2%) of them mentioned that Pepper could be valuable for entertainment, 22 (15.8%) customers thought Pepper can mean something for children and another 22 (15.8%) did not see any perspective for a service robot in the store. Lastly, 12 customers (8.6%) had no clue about what Pepper could mean for them or the store.
In addition, 15 (10.8%) people mentioned not to be interested in the robot because they were in a hurry.
– Employees
The three employees we interviewed all seemed quite skeptical about Pepper in the store. They did not experience a real decrease in workload and could not really see great advantages yet. Again, the effect on children was mentioned. Another employee pointed out that the robot was a good solution for welcoming customers. A third employee was slightly annoyed that they had to make sure Pepper was charged, which costed them extra work.
Empirical research into service robots and human-robot interaction perceptions in a real-life setting is still underdeveloped. In this study, we examined Pepper in an actual grocery store for a longer period, so we could identify unforeseen effects.
Firstly, we found that customers vary in their thoughts about the added value of Pepper. Recurring topics are entertainment and/or children, and no added value or idea. Since children seem to play a major role, it is important to take this into consideration: it might not be the actual target group of the retailer’s investment. Prior research focused on the effect of humanoids on children with autism , hearing disabilities , but the (unintended) effects for retail stores is undefined.
In line with the above, it is important for both customers and employees to know what Pepper does for the store. Store owners should have a clear goal what they would like to obtain before they invest in a service robot. The importance of instructing employees is highlighted.