From Piggly Wiggly to Chatbots in 100 Years

Sep 20, 2017


Chatbots are here to stay and are quickly becoming the sound of doing business at home, in the office and on the road.


Self-Serve Innovation

Who knew the chatbot’s self-serve pedigree could be traced back to a small grocery store in Memphis, Tennessee? It’s hard to image walking into today’s supermarket, but in 1917 shopping for your daily bread required a store clerk who picked your shopping list from the shelves while you waited.

In 1917, Clarence Saunders, the founder of Piggly Wiggly grocery stores, had a better idea. He replaced the store clerk with customer self-service and was rewarded with a U.S. patent and a personal fortune for his innovation. Ordering and fulfillment would never be the same again.

Clarence’s aha moment permanently changed the buyer to seller relationship and created what we label today as the self-service economy. Impossible to image that self-checkout would someday have an estimated global value of $245B.  Driven by the rapid adoption of what has become inexpensive technology, AI / Bot self-service is part of the fabric of everyday life, delivering more choice, convenience, personalization  and anywhere/anytime accessibility to an explosion of products and services. It’s a long way from Clarence’s SKU count of about 600 items and the store clerk’s paper pad and pencil.


Dialing for Dollars

In common with the grocery stores of their day, our first telephone networks required the buyer (caller) to speak with a clerk (operator) who facilitated the service by patching the calling parties together with cables plugged into the operator’s panel.

This was true until 1919, when the American Bell Telephone Company purchased the secondhand rotary telephone patent and stitched together the first national service for user controlled (self-service) rotary dial telephones – a system that would remain intact until the 1970’s when rotary was displaced with push button tone dialing foretelling the digital revolution to come. You remember Ma Bell don’t you? In our time of 2.3 billion global self- serve smartphone users and the everyday practice of bouncing cell phone signals off of unseen orbiting communication satellites high above our heads, it’s hard to believe so much has come so fast from a humble home town innovation.


Chocolate to Self-Serve Cash

Credit for the world’s first automated teller machine or ATM, goes to John Shepherd-Barron. It’s a fun moment of discovery. While soaking in a hot bath, John connected vending chocolate bars with dispensing cash from a self-serve money machine conveniently accessible to customers outside of banker’s hours.

John’s aha moment in 1965 realized two years later with the first ATM installation by Barclays Bank in Enfield, a London suburb.  To operate, the user inserted a paper bank check encoded with a unique 4 digit PIN followed by a matching keypad entry (yes, this was the first use of personal identification numbers).

Today, over 3 million machines are in use worldwide with functionality far beyond simply dispensing cash and a profit center for the issuing bank.


What’s Next?

Fast forward 100 years from the first self-serve market and we have successfully innovated our way to virtual service by way of smart devices stitched together by the IoT. We all enjoy the many benefits in price, choice, convenience, customization and anywhere/anytime accessibility. What I find exciting is the path ahead.

Think about it: Chatbots speak your native language, remember you by name and voice, get smarter with every transaction, never forget what you last ordered and in some cases offer purchase predictions based on your behavior. Is this starting to sound familiar? Sounds to me like all they may need someday is an apron, pad and pencil.



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