What’s the name of your favourite Walmart shop assistant? What’s the one Amazon employee you can name? You probably can’t really point to anyone. Isn’t this strange? There are 32 million US citizens employed in retail and most people can’t name one. You know what this is? This is faceless commerce and I think it’s about to change.
Commerce shapes our world
1 in 4 jobs in the US is supported by retail. That’s 52 million jobs. For states such as Texas, that proportion is even higher – 30% of all jobs in Texas are supported by retail.
Retail is a big thing. It employs the most number of people and it accounts for $3.9 trillion GDP impact in the US alone.
So how are people in retail feeling?
I think it’s safe to say that working in retail is not exactly what people think of as meaningful work.
But it is. The numbers show it’s probably the most important work in our society. So what’s happening?
Faceless commerce breaks social bonds between buyers and retail workers
Most retail has disconnected its workers from customers. Big retail chains have made it a policy to treat employees as replaceable parts that come and go without making a splash.
Ecommerce is not really much better. Have you ever seen one of the people picking, packing or shipping the product you ordered from Amazon? You know – there’s quite a lot of them. There are 575 000 people working at Amazon. There’s operations, marketing, communications, development, even robotics. Yet you’re not seeing them. But they’re working for you, the end customer.
And it’s not Walmart or Amazon who’s at fault. It’s easy to point at Jeff Bezos for buying some property. But that’s not really where the big problem lies. If anything these companies are making lives better for millions and millions of people by providing products you couldn’t get otherwise get and oh so many jobs.
It’s the process. Commerce is a process. And part of it is broken.
To make sure you get a decent service and the product you’ve ordered, the retail process is organised very similarly to an assembly line. Every piece on the way, including humans, needs to fit in and be replaceable. At least that was the theory 100 years ago, when Ford introduced the concept.
Now this doesn’t hold true anymore. Robotic work is or should be done by robots. And humans should do what they’re really good at and appreciate: connect with one another.
Commerce used to be about people connecting people. Faceless commerce is about unseen people
Commerce used to be an adventure. You would go on a foreign land, trade goods and bring back items from that land. Sometimes by force and conquest, true, but usually by providing value in multiple places and moving this value from one place to the other.
Gras’s sedentary merchant must naturally be understood in contrast to the so‐called “traveling merchant” who defined an earlier but, to a significant extent, contemporary period of long‐distance overland trade in Europe, a trade facilitated by the existence of regular circuits of commercial fairs across Northwestern Europe in the Middle Ages. Originally local or regional in character, linking town and countryside or economic center and periphery, these fairs soon 7 became hubs of inter‐regional and international merchant activity, linking the premier commercial and industrial zones of Europe. The traveling merchant who attended these fairs accompanied his goods to market, bargained face‐to‐face with buyers and sellers there, and personally assumed the burdens, costs, and risks of overland travel, from bandits and wolves to unstable infrastructure and inclement weather. Commercial fairs are attested as early as the seventh century in France, but the ninth through thirteenth centuries witnessed an explosion of both long‐distance overland trade and the establishment of fairs.
Source: Harvard Business School: Merchants and the Origins of Capitalism
Automation is putting an end to the faceless commerce
As most drudgery in commerce, such as picking, shipping or stocking are taken over by automated processes and software, humans need and want another role in the organisation. Plus – access has become commoditised. What really stands out is personality.
The best retail companies of the future will be the ones that leverage the personalities and human qualities of their employees. There’s no real need for a chat bot when you have the perfect machinery, evolved over millions of years to connect and communicate. We humans adapt, care, connect and attract other humans. You can’t have a chat bot as good as someone on the team who’s knowledgeable about products and can create a real connection with the consumer.
As stores have closed during the pandemic, companies have started rethinking their way of doing business. What is now changing is the role of the shop assistant and the experience they provide to the customers.
As digital first companies such as Amazon and Shopify start opening up new physical stores and brick-and-mortar stores accelerate their digital presences, one thing is for sure. The glue that holds everything together are the humans behind the screens or behind the counter.
We think this age of the faceless commerce is about to fade away and commerce will become human again.
We see an age of commerce where customers can create connections with store assistants and these can create their own micro-communities within the broader scope of the company (or companies) they work for.
We see small entrepreneurs showcasing their personality in front of the camera and connecting to their audience via live shows. There they showcase the products they carefully curated or manufactured themselves.
These entrepreneurs connect with their 1000 true fans and sell their merchandise by connecting at a human level, using technology.
Live commerce is the antidote for the faceless commerce
At Streams.live we build live commerce software for people that think the faceless commerce, whether it’s happening online or in store is a thing of the past. We think that empowering your actual influencers, whether that is your staff or yourself, is the way to go forward.
We live in the age of connectivity, social networks and relationships. Yet retail has not changed all that much in the past 80 years.
Many brands still act like the people behind the counter or the screens don’t matter. We think they do, we think they matter a lot. You should give live commerce a try and put a real face in front of your customers.
The big change in our times in terms of retail is not about ecommerce or the size of your store. It’s about the size of the impact you have on culture or society. And the biggest impact you can have is by shaping real connections between those who sell products and those who buy products.
The biggest impact you can have on the world is by being yourself in front of your community.