When Technology Meets Community


A co-op grocery chain in Seattle began dismantling their self-checkout kiosks this month. After considerable investment in the technology over the past few years, the PCC Community Market, made the decision to remove the automated stations.  Here is how the store describes the reasoning behind the decision:

“A kiosk doesn’t create community or connections. So we wanted to take those out so that when someone comes into our stores, they have a human connection with someone and an interaction that will make the experience more special.”

This move goes against the trend in the retail industry, and more generally across all industries, towards more automation and self-service.  A few miles from the PCC market, in downtown Seattle, is the Amazon Go store, where customers enter the store, remove any item from the shelf and simply walk out, avoiding lines and kiosks altogether.  Customers are charged automatically when they leave the store.  It’s frictionless shopping.  No human interaction necessary.

While Amazon is betting that consumers prefer to avoid the checkout process, the PCC Community Market is deliberately maintaining the human interaction in order to preserve the community aspect of the shopping experience.

A few miles south of the Amazon Go store is the headquarters of another global brand that many credit with creating customer experience marketing – Starbucks.  Most people can make a cup of coffee at home, but many willingly drive in their cars to Starbucks and pay $5 to be part of a brief, shared community.  For many, it is the experience and the community, more so than the coffee, that keeps them coming back.

Our basic need for community and connection, what Russ Roberts, the host of the podcast EconTalk, calls our “longing to belong,” is essential to the human experience.  The human species evolved in small tribes.  In primitive times, a lone human was vulnerable, but a tribe of humans working together had a chance at survival.  The close community nurtured  connections and provided physical and psychological safety.   Today technology is chipping away at the real-life social connections of daily life.  We can sit at home and order just about anything we need from Amazon or UberEats, and never need to interact with another human.  Yet it is through interaction that our lives derive meaning.

In a recent EconTalk podcast, Russ Roberts interviewed Sebastian Junger, the author of Tribe, and Junger talked about the importance of connection:

“Psychologists will tell you it is our connection to others that makes people live longer, have more meaningful, happier lives. That is what a happy meaningful life is — a connection to others.”

Successful businesses understand the power of community – brands like Apple, Nike and Starbucks – foster a sense of connection to a greater purpose.  Great leaders also leverage this basic human need, by creating a sense of community among the teams and units they lead.

As technology removes traditional human interaction – the check-out person at the grocery store, the gas station attendant, the taxi driver – new communities of connectedness will form.  The PCC Market is betting that one of those places will be your community market; something akin to a local farmers market.  Other people will prefer the Amazon approach where the convenience of shopping online and avoiding the check-out process frees up time to seek more meaningful connection elsewhere.  All businesses should be reassessing just how community focused they want to be.  Are you removing human interaction, so your customers have more time and money to find connections in other ways? Or are you creating a community for your customers that adds meaning to their life?


About the Author

Sean P. Murray is an author, speaker and consultant in the areas of leadership development and talent management. Learn more at RealTime Performance.

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