In order to survive in a dynamic, innovative and rapidly changing environment, physical stores are looking for opportunities to innovate their business. The provision of high-quality services is seen as an essential strategy here [i]. When innovating their services, shops are increasingly using innovative technology [ii]. An emerging technology that is attributed many opportunities in this respect is the service robot [iii]. This can be used, among other things, to welcome shop visitors and to show them the way in the store. But how do consumers actually experience this type of service, and what characteristics of the robot are important in this respect? And does a robot that welcomes shop-goers and the road actually influences the overall impression people have of the store’s services? Tibert Verhagen, Sven Kluft and Chloé Wichard of the Center for Market Insights at the AUAS conducted research to answer these questions.
Service robots in retail
A service robot is an autonomous technology with a physical interface that is used to interact, communicate, and provide a service with the customers of a store [iv] [v]. Service robots often have external features that make them look like a human. For example, they are equipped with arms, hands, fingers and a head, while they can still be recognized as a robot (they are humanoid). A well-known service robot that is used at some stores in our country is Pepper [vi]. Thanks to developments in the field of artificial intelligence, machine learning, speech and voice technology, motor and sensory technology, and connectivity, service robots such as Pepper are increasingly able to take on tasks independently. This allows them to proactively approach customers and engage in social interaction, which makes them fundamentally different from other forms of store technology. And although we are only on the eve of the robotization of retail, current robots are on the way to carefully take over some tasks in the store. This includes welcoming customers, showing the way, taking orders and creating a sense of social presence [vii] [viii]. When performing these tasks, service robots should be useful to customers and easy to use [ix]. Their human appearance and intelligence ensures that interactions with real store employees are approached somewhat. It is less known whether this really leads to a high level of robot services and what the effect of this is on the services of the entire store. Our research provides initial answers to this.
The research was designed and carried out using a vignette study with a quasi-experimental design. In collaboration with the Amsterdam company Welbo, a video was shot in which a situation is simulated of how the Robot Pepper service welcomes a customer at the entrance of a MediaMarkt location. The video shows the customer’s (first person perspective) and how Pepper welcomes him / her. Then Pepper asks if he can help with finding a product, which product category it concerns (image and sound, telephone and navigation, kitchen, computer, photo and video, household), and finally based on the customer’s input indicate where exactly it should be (“you will find the computers if you go up the escalator and keep left, you will find the computers by themselves”). In order to make the situation as realistic as possible, Pepper was featured in the video in a (business) environment similar to the entrance of a MediaMarkt location, and Pepper displayed the MediaMarkt logo on the tablet at the beginning and at the end of the conversation. his chest.
To exclude gender effects, the video was shot with both a man and a woman as a customer. The video was then shown to more than 170 people (students, colleagues, acquaintances), with male respondents seeing the video from the male customer and female respondents seeing the video from the female customer. After watching the video, each respondent completed an (online) questionnaire in which the following variables were measured with valid and reliable multi-item scales: human appearance, intelligence, ease of use, and utility of Pepper, quality of the services provided by Pepper, and the quality of service provided by the MediaMarkt. To carry out the analyzes, only those people who regularly visit the MediaMarkt and are customers have been selected. This resulted in a sample of 127 respondents. We have analyzed the data of these respondents with statistical software [x].
* Finding 1: Service provided by a service robot of a relatively high level
Respondents appeared to appreciate Pepper’s services. On a scale from 1 (low quality services) to 10 (high quality services), Pepper scored a 7.74. There was no difference in this area between men (n = 60) and women (n = 67). Because it is regularly pointed out that older generations have less affinity with innovative technology, we also examined whether the perceived quality of Pepper’s service differs between different age groups. As with gender, there were no significant differences here.
* Finding 2: Service robot should above all be useful, user-friendly and intelligent
To find out what determines the quality of Pepper’s services, the model below was tested with the variables examined (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: The influence of service robot characteristics on the quality of service
The results in the model show that, in order of size, the quality of the service provided by Pepper is determined by the utility (beta = 0.35), ease of use (beta = 0.29) and the impression of Pepper’s intelligence (beta = 0.20). Together, these elements explain 45% of the robot’s service quality, which is a high percentage. Pepper’s human appearance, on the other hand, appears to have no effect whatsoever. Apparently people don’t really care what the service robot looks like, as long as it’s useful in an easy way using its artificial intelligence.
Finding 3: Service robot service contributes to service throughout the store
The use of a service robot is often seen as interesting and innovative. But does it also add something to the services of the entire store? To test this, we also investigated with the tested model (see figure 1) whether the quality of the services that Pepper provides contributes to the quality of the services of the entire store. This appears to have a significant effect (beta = 0.33), with the service robot explaining 11% of the impressions of the quality of the service provided by the store. In absolute terms, this may not seem like much, but if we realize that the services in shops are determined by several factors (including knowledge and friendliness of personnel, policy, shopping atmosphere, handling complaints), the potential of the service robot is to to improve the store quite a bit. This seems to be partly due to the proactive nature of service robots. In contrast to self-service technology such as digital screens, interactive screens, and self-scanning applications, service robots use their intelligence and motor / sensory technology to proactively approach customers. With this they approach the characteristics of store staff and add something innovative to the services in the store.
Conclusion and follow-up research
The use of a service robot to welcome customers and show the way seems to add value to the service of the store. The usefulness of this activity, combined with the ease of use of a robot and the knowledge that it has a degree of intelligence, ensures that customers experience the service quality of the robot as high. The service robot service has a positive effect on the service of the entire store.
However, the results of the study are based on a vignette for one store. We have planned more service robot research with customers in real shopping situations to generalize the results. In addition to different types of shops, attention will also be paid to other types of robots and to a variety of service tasks.
Tibert Verhagen, Sven Kluft and Chloé Wichard
Center for Market Insights, Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences
The authors thank Welbo and Dominique Roos for making the video possible for the research. Top robot image: RTL
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[viii] Grewal, D., Noble, S.M., Roggeveen, A.L. & Nordfaly, J. (2020), The future of in-store technology, Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science 48, 96-113.
[x] The software used are IBM SPSS Statistics 24 (version mac) and SmartPLS (v. 3.3.2) www.smartpls.com