Automation is efficient, but it can’t replicate the human touch.
Consumers prefer the unique qualities that human labor gives to certain products and services, according to a recent paper co-authored by Wharton marketing professor Stefano Puntoni. The findings suggest companies automating for supply-side reasons may want to keep their employees because of the value they bring to the demand side.
“Companies should shift the conversation from what can be automated to what should be automated,” Puntoni and his colleagues wrote in an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal about the study.
Co-authored with Christoph Fuchs, marketing professor at the University of Vienna, and Armin Granulo, a postdoctoral researcher at Technical University of Munich’s School of Management, the paper was first published in 2021. But the scholars said it’s worth revisiting given the attention on generative AI, robotics, and other technology developments that are enticing firms toward the so-called “robot revolution.”
Across four studies, the authors found consumers to have the strongest preference for human labor in products and services with symbolic value. In other words, shoppers want uniqueness in items that express something intrinsic about their lifestyle, culture, beliefs, or sense of belonging.
While automation has many benefits, mainly standardization and repetition, Puntoni said it can’t create the kind of specialness that comes from the human touch.
“There is a unique value in human labor that doesn’t emerge because of the quality of the output of the work itself. It’s just a feeling that it gives to people,” he said to Wharton Business Daily on SiriusXM. “This is not true of every product, of course, but there are situations where people consume for what we call symbolic reasons. And when consumers consume for that reason, then the human touch really adds value, and people are willing to pay more.”
Automation vs. Human Labor
For their paper, the scholars examined consumer preferences toward several common products and services, including eyeglasses and tattoos. In the eyeglasses study, they asked participants to choose from different lenses and frames of the same cost. Participants preferred lenses made by machines, believing that automation would result in a more uniform and high-quality product. But they overwhelmingly preferred frames made by human labor, saying they wanted their glasses to be “atypical” or “uncommon” or “unique.”
“The frames become fashion accessories,” Puntoni said. “And as such, they can become quite symbolic for people.”
“There are situations where people consume for what we call symbolic reasons. And when consumers consume for that reason, then the human touch really adds value.”— Stefano Puntoni
The tattoo study looked at two contexts: application and removal. Participants were given the option of going to a tattoo studio to get inked either by an artist or a robot (supervised by an artist). They were also asked to imagine going to a clinic to have a tattoo removed either by a doctor or a robot (supervised by a doctor). The participants were told that the results would be identical no matter which option they chose.
Although participants had a higher preference for human labor in both scenarios, they were much more open to having a robot remove the tattoo than apply it. Puntoni said the study underscores the preference for human labor for a service as personal as a tattoo — even when the results are guaranteed to be identical to the work of a robot.
“Our accounting for these effects is rooted in the notion of the uniqueness and when you consume for symbolic reasons,” he said. “When you consume for instrumental or functional reasons, then uniqueness is not particularly valued, and in some contexts may even be a bad thing.”
What Jobs Will AI Replace? It Comes Down to Consumer Demand
Consumers are getting more comfortable with AI, and their expectations are likely to change with time as technology improves. Yet Puntoni believes the preference for human labor in certain goods and services is here to stay — not in spite of technology but perhaps because of it.
“This idea that we seek uniqueness in symbolic consumption seems to be a rather fundamental fact that is unlikely to be changing with developments in technology, and that is likely to remain a perceived advantage of humans for the foreseeable future,” he said. “As a matter of fact, it might be that the effect is even stronger over time as machines do more and more things.”
Puntoni encouraged companies to think very carefully about automation and give serious consideration to what components should remain manual. It’s not just about operational efficiency, he said, it’s also about what consumers demand.
“Machines are increasingly able to do what we do, cheaper and often better. But only people offer companies the opportunity to entice consumers with products ‘Made by Humans,’” the scholars wrote.