How can we create shopping experiences that will tap into and serve our human needs? It’s those that can deliver across each of the stages of human needs who will deliver in the long term for shoppers

Maslow’s hierarchy, till-less stores, the cult of status and finding self-fulfilment in a convenience store | Blake Gladman, Strategy & Insight Director

By now I’m sure you’ve seen countless articles, features and opinion pieces on the new Sainsbury’s convenience store concept in central London. Billed as ‘the UK’s first till-free grocery store’. The experiment will put SmartShop Scan, Pay & Go technology to the test in a bespoke food-to-go store, making grocery shopping quicker and more convenient. Customer feedback from the experiment will help Sainsbury’s develop the SmartShop Scan, Pay & Go app further before being rolled out more widely.

First up, before we start, there is one thing to be aware of, that this is not your typical convenience store. It’s right in the middle of the city with a shopper base made up almost entirely of office workers. The store does offer a basic range of grocery products but is predominantly used for breakfast, lunch and evening meals (for now and for later that day). Furthermore, 82% of existing transactions (before this trial) were cashless. Pointing to a perfect storm of location, shopper demographic, missions and the propensity for early adopters.

Of course, this isn’t ‘new-new’ as Sainsbury’s are essentially standing on the shoulders of Amazon, who launched their ‘Go’ store format concept in Seattle in December 2016. Now with 11 stores throughout the US, in Seattle, Chicago and San Francisco, and recent rumours of site acquisitions in the UK pointing to expansion overseas. It’s clear that this ‘concept’ is seen by many as the future of convenience; the top 3 shopper demands of speed of service, availability and quality of staff can all be improved upon and maximised through the use of this technology.

“The key question though is whether it would work outside of the central London bubble?”

To answer that question, we have to look beyond location, beyond technology and to the heart of the question. We have to look at the human behaviours and desires that are inherent in each of us to truly assess whether this concept will prove to be the future of the convenience shopping experience.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Many of you will be familiar with Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ and the iconic pyramid image, which will be burned into the retinas of anyone who studied economics at school. The theory, established in 1943, is an attempt to summarise the human needs and emotions that motivate our actions. Moving from the basic necessities of safety/surviving through to being loved and ultimately personal fulfilment.

Is this theory still relevant today? One of the main criticisms of Maslow’s theory is that the structure is rigid, in that you have to complete each step before you can move onto the next and that this doesn’t reflect the modern world. Another criticism is that it is heavily biased towards the western world of which Abraham Maslow was part of in New York during the first half of the 20th century. However, Maslow himself stated that the structure isn’t rigid, in fact the pyramid iconography didn’t actually feature in the paper he produced on this subject, and that people are able to move up and down or skip levels, based on personal circumstances.

Modern technology’s impact on human behaviours

So why is this important? Well it’s important to understand the base theory at play in our behaviours before we look at the impact that modern concepts have on us. First up, we will inevitably see an instant uplift in sales and footfall to these new concept stores– driven in no small part for our desire for status. By that I mean status in its modern guise, a distinctive story to tell your friends, your followers and yourself. We have created a world in which we are all acutely dialled in to be continuously searching for yet another experience that is unique, cultured, exciting, unusual, new and noticeable. This is nowhere more evident than in the rapid growth of Instagram Stories, which hit half a billion daily active users in January of this year. Breakthrough this status rush and at its core are these basic human needs that Maslow pointed out. I’m not talking about ‘shopping needs’ (we know speed of service, staff friendliness, etc. is important), I’m talking about human needs. How can we create shopping experiences that will tap into and serve our human needs? It’s those that can deliver across each of the stages of human needs who will deliver long term with shoppers- safety/surviving, feeling loved and personal fulfilment.

‘Till-less stores might seem like a gimmick, technological bravado designed to gain column inches rather than customers.”

However, it’s rooted in the desire to improve the shopping experience. Whether it achieves this is the proverbial sword by which the concept will survive or die. It’s ability to meet and enhance the basic human needs, though, is the key to not only surviving, but thriving.

As a final point, let’s look at the two main types of human needs, suggested by Maslow. The need for respect from others (e.g., prestige, attention, status, and fame) and the need for respect from the self (e.g., freedom, independence, strength). One could argue that this technology allows us to do both. Will that equate to future success? Only time will tell.