The last time my mom visited we took a longer way back home after dinner. On our stroll we passed by a small corner store not far from the Volksplein. An antique hanging scale and eet meer fruit handwritten on a wooden board caught our eyes. While we were inspecting some old-fashioned Easter eggs and bunnies sitting among fruit boxes in the window, an older man stepped outside. He introduced himself as the owner and proudly confessed that his store, called Lilian Mille, was the oldest still functioning ‘fruit en groentewinkel’ in town. In the half hour chat that followed he told us about the neighborhood's history and shared many stories of his upbringing. We eventually headed home with a couple of free apples and a new feeling of appreciation for Maastricht.
After this experience it feels strange to imagine future stores and retailers be run without actual humans. The recently opened Amazon-Go store is just one example of how things could pan out. Inside, hundreds of cameras and sensors monitor your every move, tally whatever you take from shelves and charge your account as you exit. The internet retailer Alibaba has also been busy developing its "smile and pay" facial recognition payment system. Robots are starting to roam around large retailers like Walmart, while small start-ups like AiFi are creating cashier-less check-out technologies for mom & pop stores just like the one in my neighborhood.
These installments will definitely streamline checkout procedures. However, critics are weary of privacy issues, job losses, and the fact that this is not the first attempt at taking the human element out of the retail experience. Years ago, big American store chains like Albertsons and Costco installed self check-out machines. Yet, after a subsequent drop in consumer satisfaction, human cashiers were reintroduced.
Perhaps the lack of interaction contributed to that dissatisfaction. Personal interaction is certainly something I value in Maastricht. I'm sure there are many foreign students like me who learned their first Dutch words ("pinnen?" and "bonnetje erbij?") while shopping . Unless future store bots turn out to be as genuine as WALL-E, the reassuring advice I received from locals every time I had to pick out a nice bottle of wine or a gift unique to this region will remain unmatched by any form of artificial intelligence.
Nina Schröder, masters student Health Food Innovation Management