Danger, Will Robinson? Automation is replacing – but also enhancing – many retail jobs

Of the 16 million Americans who work in retail, nearly half could lose their jobs to robots over the next decade, a new study has found. More particularly, 7.5 million retail jobs are expected to become automated over that time period, and cashiers are the most likely to be affected.

The study, which was released by Cornerstone Capital Group, revealed that the 16 million Americans who work in the retail industry make up 10 percent of the nation’s workforce and generate 6 percent of the United States’ gross domestic product. While the cost-savings of automating numerous jobs in the struggling retail industry may be a welcome respite to employers – particularly in the face of employees’ demands for wage increases – mass automation also poses a challenge for dealing with future job losses. As stated by Erika Karp, Cornerstone’s founder and Chief Executive Officer, “The winners in retail will be companies that provide recruitment, retention, and training for workers and innovate with forward-thinking future store strategies.”

The study revealed that although technology may eliminate a number of jobs, it is not yet sophisticated enough to take over positions that require high levels of customer interaction. Indeed, some technological advances will complement labor by relieving workers of mundane tasks, allowing them to create a more personalized customer experience. However, in other cases, technology could make jobs obsolete due to the automation of a substantial portion of the sales process.

In addition to the now-ubiquitous self-checkout, companies in the industry are rolling out a number of different technologies that will have the effect of taking over retail jobs. One of these developments is the use of mobile apps that allow customers to scan a barcode or take a picture of an item in order to retrieve additional product information or find other colors or sizes on a retailer’s website. Another advance is the proximity beacon, which alerts shoppers to promotions and gives sales associates information on customers who frequent the store so they can provide high-touch service. Additionally, retailers are introducing autonomous robots that can direct customers to desired products or assist with inventory replenishment. The study also predicted that these robots will be able to check customers out, return items to shelves, and clean up stores, thereby greatly reducing the need for employees.

Price tags and inventory management are also being affected by technological advances. The first of these, the Radio Frequency Identification tag, allows retailers to enhance inventory tracking throughout their entire supply chain. In addition, companies are using so-called “smart price tags,” which allow retailers to change prices in real time due to demand or other trends. Smart shelves are another advance that detect when inventory is low so appropriate orders or supply chain changes can be made.

Similar to self-checkout, sensor checkout looks to greatly reduce a retailer’s need for cashiers. With sensor checkout, products are automatically scanned as a customer walks out of the store. An example of this is the much-touted Amazon Go store, which the company announced in late 2016 and began testing with its employees in Seattle. According to Amazon’s website, the company “created the world’s most advanced shopping technology so you never have to wait in line.” They call the shopping experience Just Walk Out. The brick-and-mortar store uses cameras, sensors, and algorithms to automatically detect when products are taken or returned to the shelves and keeps track of them in a virtual cart. Once customers are done shopping, they can leave the store, and Amazon will charge their account and send a receipt. As evidenced by the Amazon Go store, the report said, “These headwinds are pushing retailers to rethinking the traditional business model.”

The Amazon Go store was supposed to open to the public this past March, but testing with Amazon employees revealed technological issues that have delayed the debut. More specifically, Amazon has had difficulty tracking customers when there are more than 20 people in the store and when people move quickly. Additionally, there have been issues related to tracking items that are moved from their specific spots on the shelf. Amazon is currently working out the kinks with the technology, but it is clear that automation will have a significant impact on the retail industry and its employees. Indeed, the rise of e-commerce, store closings, and technological advances are likely to dramatically affect the employment landscape in America.

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