Robots Will Reshape – Not Replace – Retail Work
As we have discussed in earlier blog posts, rapid changes in the retail landscape due to the rise of e-commerce and a shift in customer’s interests from old-school, one-stop department store shopping to experiential retail, has led to a recent wave of retail bankruptcies and store closings. The shuttered stores also mean a loss of retail jobs, in particular traditional retail sales clerks. Now traditional retail jobs face another threat – automation.
Retailers have been introducing automation throughout brick-and-mortar stores, from Amazon Go (a high-end convenience store with an entirely automated sales process), to the rise of self-checkout lanes, to the mobile order and pick up option popularized by Starbucks that is now popping up throughout the fast-casual sector, including at Sweetgreen and Panera Bread locations. Even fast food restaurants are jumping on the automation bandwagon. McDonald’s is starting to introduce the “Experience of the Future” including mobile ordering and the use of new digital ordering kiosks that will replace cashiers. Wendy’s is also introducing a similar kiosk ordering system in their restaurants.
Automation is pushing the next shift in the needs of retail employers. Although the increase in mobile ordering, e-commerce purchases, and kiosks certainly means some easily automated jobs – like cashiers – will become obsolete, there is room for growth in other customer facing jobs. Customers still crave human interaction and seek it out as a part of their shopping experience, even while appreciating the increased convenience of ordering ahead and streamlining check out. For example, while McDonald’s kiosks will reduce the need for cashiers, the simultaneous introduction of table service creates a new role for at least some of those displaced employees. And e-commerce platforms like Bonobos and Warby Parker are actually increasing their physical presence using “guideshops” that allow customers to try on products, interact with employees and other customers, and place orders through e-commerce sites. It is important to remember that previous examples that foretold doom and gloom for certain job sectors – like the advent of ATM machines – did not come to fruition. After ATMs became prevalent in the 1970s there were widespread predictions that ATMs would eventually eliminate bank tellers. However, precisely the opposite happened. Although ATMs reduced the number of tellers needed in each bank branch, the cost to operate bank branches fell so dramatically that the total number of branches increased, and so did the demand for bank tellers.
Although automation is sure to shape retail employment in the coming years, it is unlikely that predictions of robots taking over a majority of retail positions will come true. Instead, automation will hopefully move humans into more enjoyable roles, interacting with consumers, while allowing their robot counterparts to take over more mundane tasks, such as ordering, checking out, and restocking.