Can human roles in retail survive the relentless march of the robots? Much of the current debate on automation focuses on the possible demise of existing jobs and the spread of automation into service and white-collar sectors – and retail is certainly one industry poised to follow this automation path in pursuit of the next driver of profits. From the advent of the steam engine and mechanisation of farming, through to the introduction of personal computing - jobs have always been automated through the use of technology. However, as new technologies have come to market, human ingenuity and the ability to create new products and services have increased the scope for employment and fulfilment. Retail has enjoyed enormous benefits from technology tools, but has the time come when automation poses a threat to jobs? Here we present two possible scenarios for retail 2020-2025: one where automation eliminates the majority of retail jobs and a second which sees the emergence of new paid roles in retail.
Scenario One: Robo-Retail Rules
By 2020, in-store robots walk the aisles to guide customers, help order from another branch, and bring goods to the checkout, or your car. Artificial intelligence (AI) personal assistants like Siri and Alexa have become personal shoppers, with perfect knowledge of customers’ tastes and preferences. This allows for development of retail algorithms to recommend the perfect item before shoppers even know they want it. The algorithms offer recommendations drawing on databases of consumer preferences (i.e. Amazon recommendations), social media, friends’ recent purchases, and analysis of emerging trends – with our AI assistants providing our profiles to help filter and select the appropriate offers.
By 2022, many stores try to retain humans in key service roles for customers who want the personal touch, but most customers prefer to shop online – even if they still browse in-store. Mobile and pop-up digital stores and malls – where customers view products digitally – display selected items as touchable and sniffable holograms personalised to you. Wealthier customers can book a personal visit by an autonomous vehicle, robot or drone which can then perform the holographic display in the comfort of your own home or garden – giving birth to the next wave of home shopping parties. TV and retail are fully integrated - the majority of films and TV shows offer the ability to click on an item in the show, view it in more detail, see how we would look wearing it or how it might look in our home and then make an instant purchase. In all these formats, shoppers ‘click to buy’ virtual items, which are shipped instantly by autonomous vehicle or drone.
By 2025 The physical stores that continue to attract customers do so with high-tech in-store experiential services. In-store 3D/4D printing and spray-on manufacture of items to your design are commonplace. Experiences include multi-sensory immersive fashion displays, mirrors showing customers wearing an item of clothing under different lighting, in different colours and sizes and robot tailors customising clothing to our requirements while we wait. The sharing economy is well advanced by now so that, at the point of purchase for many items, we already have a community who will share the ownership and cost of purchase with us.
Scenario Two: Humanity at a Price
By 2020, retailers use AI to determine who typically shops and when, and change displays so that eye-catching items are offered to relevant customers walking through at the time of day they typically visit. This would work particularly well in train stations and airports when you have a sense of which high spending passenger groups are coming through. In-store robots and drones could continuously change displays, alleviating the repetitive, physically exhausting work of retail jobs. Employees would therefore be more relaxed, thus placing more attention on the customer. Local stores might use AI apps to track the preferences of their customers, make recommendations, and deliver items at the perfect time – so shopping is completely seamless and tailored to specific customer needs. This is the edge by which small brick-and-mortar shops are able to compete with online retailers and bigger chains.
By 2022, people are willing to pay a premium to access a live purchasing advisor, someone who is an expert in a certain line of retail. This exclusivity leads to super elite retail boutiques. Part of what these shops offer would be a service where shoppers connect with fashion bloggers, Instagram idols, or YouTube artists whose fashion sense they admire. Customer service is anything but free, but well worth the cost to these shoppers. Creativity, self-expression and individuality are major retail offerings in this future. For example, 3D print stores could help shoppers design an item, print it while they lunch, for them to collect on departure. The value-add of retail work would be the personal touch and connection in creating and selecting personalised products. In this future, services and guides become increasingly important in shopping experiences especially in destination shopping centres and malls, keeping retail jobs in demand.
By 2025 automation’s impact may support retail growth: products could become so cheap, thanks to extremely low-cost, highly-productive robotic labour, that the value comes in the form of an evolved ‘Personal Shopper’. Automation and robotics would support the actual purchase and delivery, but a Personal Shopper provides emotional support and companionship on the shopping experience: “That suits you so well” … “Why not cook prawns as a starter if chicken is your main course?” In a future where the majority of people are involved in online schooling and remote working, this Personal Shopper service could meet cravings for personal contact.
Two Retail Futures
There is little debate that robots will take jobs - hence both scenarios assume that the future leads to the automation of current retail roles. Companies must avoid the temptation to plug in technology fixes where human solutions are needed, and this is especially true for retail. The value of a good, authentic conversational style or a sense of humour is something that even today puts certain retail workers at an advantage. Public-facing jobs are a test of social skills, which seem to be safely in the domain of people, not robots, for now.
The authors are futurists with Fast Future who specialise in studying and advising on the impacts of emerging change. Fast Future also publishes books from future thinkers around the world exploring how developments such as AI, robotics and disruptive thinking could impact individuals, society and business and create new trillion-dollar sectors. Fast Future has a particular focus on ensuring these advances are harnessed to unleash individual potential and enable a very human future. See: www.fastfuture.com
Rohit Talwar is a global futurist, keynote speaker, author, and CEO of Fast Future where he helps clients develop and deliver transformative visions of the future. He is the editor and contributing author for The Future of Business, editor of Technology vs. Humanity, and co-editor of a forthcoming book on Unleashing Human Potential–The Future of AI in Business.
Steve Wells is the COO of Fast Future and an experienced Strategist, Futures Analyst, and Partnership Working Practitioner. He is a co-editor of The Future of Business, Technology vs. Humanity, and a forthcoming book on Unleashing Human Potential–The Future of AI in Business.
Alexandra Whittington is the foresight director at Fast Future. She is a futurist, writer, and faculty member on the Futures programme at the University of Houston. She is a contributor to The Future of Business and a co-editor for forthcoming books on Unleashing Human Potential–The Future of AI in Business and 50:50–Scenarios for the Next 50 Years.