With its acquisition of home security system Ring and launch of Amazon Key, a delivery service that lets couriers unlock your front door, Amazon offers video-monitored package delivery inside the home. Walmart, in partnership with August Home, is offering a similar service whereby delivery personnel monitored by cameras place groceries in your refrigerator. Sounds straightforward, right? But viewed through a wider lens, there may be more to these developments than meets the eye.
What appears at first glance to be a monitoring service for consumers may also be a monitoring of consumers, sparking privacy concerns. The video footage—plus what the delivery personnel can see—puts these companies in a prime position to gather valuable data inside your home or refrigerator, on top of what they gather from Alexa or other consumer devices in smart homes.
But Amazon may also be trying to get a foot in your door for an entirely different reason. The in-home delivery service may evolve into an interactive in-home sales service. While this may sound implausible today, let’s think it through.
From a retailer’s perspective, the point-of-sale continues to shift from physical stores, where valuable high-touch human sales interfaces are possible, to the largely impersonal world of ecommerce. As the digital sales process becomes increasingly commoditized and competitive, retailers are motivated to find new ways to differentiate and strengthen their communication with consumers.
Already, some personnel who previously worked strictly as service providers are starting to hawk products at the point-of-service. For example, the last couple of times that my car battery died, the AAA roadside service providers tried to sell me a new battery instead of jumping my car. The eagerness made me wonder if underlying incentives lurked.
Those kinds of service relationships, by their nature, are one-offs. However, what about more recurring relationships that happen inside the home where trust is the most valuable commodity? In-home service providers of all types—maids, plumbers, electricians, nannies, tutors, caretakers, nurses, gardeners, cooks and delivery personnel—are suddenly looking like untapped sales channels to retailers. Imagine an Amway salesperson dressed as Mrs. Doubtfire.
While the idea of salespeople doing business inside your home might sound appalling, the bigger struggle for many people today, sadly, is a battle against alienation and isolation inside one’s home. Just as porn has replaced sex, the clinical efficiency and convenience that comes with technology is reducing direct human contact everywhere. There is a growing population for whom a chance to interact with a visiting human—even one that is working on commission—is a salve for loneliness. Retail therapy may soon come to the bedside in the form of an attentive service provider not unlike like Mrs. Doubtfire, only more seductive.
As unseemly as that future may seem, the history of retail, looking back, has been one remarkable step-function after another of increasing trust between retailers and consumers. In the beginning folks traded products guardedly in an open market. Then folks allowed others to enter their store and negotiate for products out of their reach. Then someone invented stores that allowed complete strangers to trespass onto their property and fondle undefended assets before deciding to pay the list price. Then someone invented the idea that you could return products after purchase. Then someone gave birth to Jeff Bezos. Then someone invented the idea of shipping you nine boxes of shoes and have you return eight.
Each of these retail revolutions required a new level of trust that may have been unthinkable to prior generations. One could make the argument that each of these revolutions benefited both the retailers and consumers. But how will it play out going forward?
If retailers make a play for your “smart home” as the next frontier for the point-of-sale, the formerly trespassed are about to become the trespassers, and they know more about you than you know about yourself. One wonders if the continued encroachment will have ill consequences.
The most vulnerable to this in-home sales model is the elderly. They have money but are starved for attention and less able to get out of the house on their own. Elderly in America are largely left alone by their families, and their everyday human contact is more often with service providers such as home care personnel and nurses. Under these circumstances, the trust that the elderly confer on these providers tends to be high—a home care provider might spend 30 hours in the house per week—and is subject to the risk of abuse. Fortunately, outright abuses such as inheritance embezzlements are rare. However, a vision of a future where in-home service providers motivated by sales commissions are influencing the purchasing behavior of the vulnerable is one that should give all of us pause.
Ultimately, this is not a story about Amazon. The invisible hand is a soulless race to the bottom, or more accurately, to the bottom line. If Amazon doesn’t ultimately backdoor a future salesperson through your front door as service providers, another company will gladly step in.
We may be about to open the door to that future.
Joon Yun and Jeremy Yun are principals of the Yun Family Foundation.