Whole Foods Store with Amazon collection spot — when online and offline collide
PHOTO: NYCStock / Shutterstock

My interest in customer experience follows me wherever I go. Whenever I use a product or service, an evaluation is running somewhere in the back of my mind about how my own customer experience is going. I can't seem to shut it off. While this can be interesting, it can also be burdensome. 

One theme that I keep returning to lately is what I'll classify as the unintended consequences of the internet marketplace. Specifically, companies' ability to sell products and services through the internet is having unexpected implications for all of us in the physical world.

One Man's Convenience Is Another Man's Nuisance

An example of this involves ride-sharing apps. These apps are very convenient for users, but cause a massive spike in local traffic when everyone is booking an Uber ride. New traffic problems are created, especially in crowded urban cores that get bottled up with Uber drivers stopping on corners and clogging the roads for other drivers. There are many examples, but one that sticks out involves the recent moves by Los Angeles International Airport to limit the effects of these ride-hailing services.

Another case in the same vein is the increasing number of electric scooters taking over roads and sidewalks, causing new problems for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers. Although these new ridesharing and delivery apps are super convenient for one audience, they've created unintended impacts for other related stakeholders who share the same sidewalks and roadways.

Other examples involve instances where you are physically shopping or dining, and your experience is altered in some way by internet orders. If you ever wander into Starbucks to grab a coffee during prime time, there will likely be crowds waiting for their mobile Starbucks order. Or, if you are ever waiting in line to place an order at a restaurant that does not have table service, you will likely notice DoorDash delivery people racing in and out to pick up mobile orders. Moreover, your experience is likely interrupted by employees serving online orders.

Related Article: What Happens When IoT, Big Data and Real-Time Location Systems Meet?

When Online and In Person Collide

This type of unexpected nuisance really hit home recently on a visit to Whole Foods, which is owned by Amazon. I was shopping over the weekend and realized how over the last few months, I've noticed my local Whole Foods parking lot and store have been taken over by Amazon workers fulfilling online orders. Ironically, since seeing this and writing about it, the topic has also been featured in the Wall Street Journal. Here are several observations about the perhaps unintended consequences Amazon Prime Now is having on in-store shoppers.

  1. When in-store customers shop, their experience is lessened by the decreased parking spaces, which are now reserved for workers shopping for online customers.
  2. The physical space in the store is increasingly feeling like a warehouse. This means it is less oriented to the in-store shopper experience. Re-stocking and mechanical equipment crowd the aisles, creating a big-box Costco feeling. As an in-store shopper, one feels in the way.
  3. The intimate experience of shopping in the store has changed because 10% of those people buying in the store are not shoppers themselves, but rather are shopping for several online order customers. Their energy is different, they are rushed, and they take up an excessive amount of space in the aisles. Moreover, historically, re-stocking shelves has been done during non-business hours. Now, one regularly must avoid big electric forklifts in the aisles.

These unintended consequences have implications for customer and employee experiences. First, there are implications for the in-store customer who has traveled there to shop in person. Given the changes happening, how might places like Whole Foods consider the in-store experience in new ways that acknowledge, and even perhaps take advantage of the changes underway? Second, there is the fulfillment worker whose energy and motivation and priorities are different than the regular shopper. They look rushed, often haggard, and stressed. This energy is incongruent with the energy of leisurely shopping. How might Whole Foods best align the employee fulfillment experience to support an in-store shopping experience?

Related Article: Online, Offline – Who Cares? Present One Brand Experience

Can We Find a Balance Between Internet Convenience and In-Store Experience?

Beyond the specific examples I've presented here, how are customer experiences in general changing as a result of the internet? Are negative experiences of some customers, or negative associations of one brand on innocent bystanders, worth the short-term benefit from lines of internet-related business? How might companies measure the cost-benefits of such dichotomies? 

Mapping out the customer journey experience for all customers is the right starting place. From there, one can determine whether the pain points experienced by some outweigh the benefits of others.  

This should be a new area of focus by retailers and restaurants to assess customer satisfaction levels amid the rise of online shopping, while traditional commerce is still conducted in their physical stores. The race to provide internet conveniences should not outweigh the comfort and satisfaction of loyal in-store shoppers.