Service Robots Rising: How Humanoid Robots Influence Service Experiences and Food Consumption

Martin Mende, Maura L. Scott, Jenny van Doorn, Ilana Shanks, and Dhruv Grewal, 2017, 17-125-10

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Interactions between consumers and humanoid service robots (i.e., robots with a human-like morphology such as a face, arms, and legs) soon will be part of routine marketplace experiences, and represent a primary arena for innovation in services and shopper marketing. At the same time, it is not clear whether humanoid robots, relative to human employees, trigger positive or negative consequences for consumers and companies. Although creating robots that appear as much like humans as possible is the “holy grail” in robotics, there is a risk that consumers will respond negatively to highly human-like robots, due to the feelings of discomfort that such robots can evoke.

Here, Martin Mende, Maura Scott, Jenny van Doorn, Ilana Shanks, and Dhruv Grewal investigate whether humanoid service robots (HSRs) trigger discomfort and what the consequences might be for customers’ service experiences. They focus on the effects of HSRs in a food consumption context.

Six experimental studies, conducted in the context of restaurant services, reveal that consumers report lower assessments of the server when their food is served by a humanoid service robot than by a human server, but their desire for food and their actual food consumption increases. Investigating the underlying process driving these effects, the authors find that humanoid service robots put consumers in a state of discomfort (e.g., eeriness), which results in greater food intake. Moreover, this research identifies boundary conditions of the effects, such that the adverse responses that humanoid service robots elicit are (1) elevated when a perceived threat to human identity is high and (2) mitigated when consumer-perceived social belongingness is high.

Managerial implications
These findings have critical implications for organizations considering the use of HSRs.

Companies that aim to employ service robots should account for consumers’ technology anxiety or readiness and customize service experiences accordingly. For example, companies might assign human service providers to customers with low levels of technology readiness but offer HSRs to their technology-ready peers.

Managers should also be cognizant of the implications of forcing consumers to use technologies. They might offer consumers a choice of being served by humans or HSRs, to help offset the negative effects HSRs can trigger. A related implication is to roll out the technology slowly and take time to gauge reactions from customers.

Finally, the organizational context should define the actual implementation of HSRs. In restaurants with many nonrecurring customers, such as at airports or train stations, the use of HSRs may be a viable option, while restaurants that depend on a loyal customer base may be well-advised to use caution until the long-term consequences of the use of HSRs have been further explored. Given the moderating role of social belongingness, HSRs might be a reasonable option in food settings that promote sociability.

Martin Mende is Associate Professor of Marketing and Maura L. Scott is Madeline Duncan Rolland Associate Professor of Business Administration, both at the College of Business, Florida State University. Jenny van Doorn is Associate Professor of Marketing, Faculty of Business and Economics, University of Groningen, The Netherlands. Ilana Shanks is a Doctoral Candidate in Marketing, College of Business, Florida State University. Dhruv Grewal is Professor of Marketing and Toyota Chair in Commerce and Electronic Business, Babson College.

The authors gratefully acknowledge a Marketing Science Institute Customer Experience Grant (#4000053), which helped to support this research.

Related links

Consumers and Their Experiences: Dehumanized, Re-Humanized
Bernd Schmitt (2017) [Conference presentation] 

Board of Trustees Meeting: Customer Experience Beyond the Hype (2017) [Conference report] 


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