Robot Associate: Are retail jobs at risk?

Even though headlines may seem to scream otherwise, the store is not dead. Shopping is a social experience that people want to participate in and that’s not going to go away anytime soon. What is changing is the traditional customer engagement model, as customers now have more information and resources at their fingertips and demand more from their shopping experience.

Today’s stores must encompass both worlds – the sensory experience generally available in the physical world married with the unique and personalized shopping experience common in the digital world. To accomplish this, many retailers are looking to technology and automation to improve the in-store customer experience.

Robots, Automation & Retail

While automation and robots can be a good way to cut overall costs, there is a fine line as to where it makes sense to deploy. Operationally, RFID technology can automate inventory/cycle counts, augmented reality can help with merchandising and floor sets, and blockchain technology can be used to prove authenticity of a luxury good. Areas such as visual recognition and augmented reality displays can enable personalization of merchandise – choose a color, monogram, etc. – to create a custom order and deliver directly to the customer. While virtual mirrors can offer customers the ability to try on merchandise and feel comfortable with their purchase without the merchandise physically being there.

And we are seeing retailers embrace some of these technologies. According to the 2018 POS/Customer Engagement Survey, 41% of retailers plan to utilize augmented reality within three years and 23% plan to utilize virtual mirrors in the same time-frame. These technologies offer further ways to personalize the customer experience in the store. But their best use is as a supplement to knowledgeable, well-trained, technology-enabled human sales associates.

Customer ExperienceCustomer Experience & Personalization

The real-time retail trend of identifying a customer and guiding the customer through the sale via human interaction won’t soon be replaced by automation. The process of customer engagement and personalized context (understanding the time of day, how the customer is dressed, what department they are shopping, if they have a wedding ring, if they are well dressed, etc.), as well as cross-selling and up-selling require a finesse that today’s robotics cannot replace.

However, there are opportunities to utilize technology to enhance relationships by improving associate’s ability to sell to the customers while making them more efficient operationally. Much of the recent automation focus has been on reducing the dependence on cashiers. For example, the elimination of a traditional POS via a “scan and go” technology, allows retailers to redesign their stores and eliminate the classic cash wrap desk to enable more customer-associate interaction and personalization.

While there is a fascination with robots in retail and we are certainly seeing more uses for technology in the store, the adoption will be a slow process with sales associates still a necessary role.

Ken Morris

Ken was CEO and President of LakeWest Group and founder of CFT Consulting and CFT Systems, a retail software company. Earlier in his career, he held retail information technology executive positions at Lord & Taylor, Filene’s (Macy’s), Talbots, Stop & Shop Supermarket Company, and Sears. His experience is with strategy, selection development and deployment of retail management systems and processes.


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