The wide world of retail has become more than just the world of “I want that.” It’s become the world of “I want it NOW.” That has both brick-and-mortar, as well as online shops taking a second look at how to make the customer happy and fast.
But what exactly does that mean for the people who make their living through retail? According to Doug Stephens, the founder of Retail Prophet it means they’re actually the most likely to lose their jobs.
“Some of these front line, repetitive jobs are going to go away. There’s no question.”
LISTEN: Future of Work – Technology in the retail industry
It’s easy to spot a number of companies posting entry-level jobs in retail for cashiers, merchandisers, store supervisors and managers.
Stephens says the typically basic tasks of scanning, price checking, processing transactions, and tracking inventory are the same ones computers of today are able to replicate.
“There are a good number of retailers, and particularly, in certain sectors like the grocery sector that operate on incredibly narrow margins. It’s quite shocking, really, when you start to look at the balance sheets of some of these retailers, how little money they actually put in the bank at the end of the day. I think these companies are going to be looking at technology very seriously, and looking for anywhere they feel that it can replace employees who, through no fault of their own, but by virtue of the work that they do, not adding tremendous value to the experience.”
Wal-Mart, Superstore, Safeway, and London Drugs are just some businesses using self-checkouts, while online shopping juggernaut Amazon continues to develop drone delivery, and its next-day-delivery service in Amazon Prime.
With costs constantly rising to rein in all this new tech, some businesses have to go the distance to stretch their dollar.
A June 2016 study by the Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Ontario says the changes could be incredibly obvious within the next ten or twenty years.
As with any kind of technology, Stephens is confident Canadian hubs will see those changes first, the same way we saw ATMs roll out at banks.
“A lot of those changes were rolled out in major cities first, where the demand for that kind of convenience existed, where people typically don’t have the time or don’t want to make the time to line up for a cashier or a teller. They eventually make their way out to the more rural populations.”
Of the top five jobs listed in the study as being at “high risk” of being automated, coming in at number four: cashiers.
As for number one – yep, you guessed it: retail salespeople.
But, hold up: Stephens says there’s still a little wiggle room for some retail workers, depending on your business’s model. After all, not all retailers are the same.
“If you’re a retailer, and you can legitimately say that the people who work your cash registers and check your customers out of the store add an intrinsic human value and an irreplaceable sort of interaction with the customer, that the customer is delighted with, I think you would be cautioned to replace that with technology. On the other hand, as consumers, how many of our interactions on a day-to-day basis, at the cashier or the check-out, are really uplifting, or inspirational? Retailers are going to be looking at all those positions with a very discerning eye.”
It may not all be doom and gloom, though, Stephens says there is a silver lining; he says some retailers may adopt a model in which the worker and artificial intelligence go hand-in-hand.
“I see that there’s room to elevate the position of a salesperson, so that these people feel more empowered, that they’re able to do their jobs better, and ultimately, be better brand ambassadors for the companies that they work for.”
Prospective workers can even look to the back end of things. Stephens has this piece of advice for someone who wants to find a job in retail, but also wants to keep their skills competitive.
“You either have to focus on work that is incredibly specialized. I would say that if you could get a job working in a specialized field of data science, or technology, that would be a pretty safe bet. The retail world right now is desperate and hungry for data scientists that can help them understand this whole concept of big data, and how to use it. On the other side, I would say if you can develop a position or find work that involves tremendous amounts of creativity…so on the marketing side, on the promotions side of the business. If you can work on creative projects that computers, you know, as good as they are at figuring out our taxes, and navigating our cars, they’re still not very good at creative projects. The creative fields and the data science fields [in retail] are the two areas I’d say to focus your energy.”
So, to sum up, what does the future of retail work look like?
Well, you can expect more automation, with the impact depending on your company’s business model and priorities. We’ll probably see fewer postings up for entry-level retail jobs.
Retail work is also expanding to include computing science jobs, that’ll allow companies to interpret retail data to figure out ways to make their business more profitable.
And don’t forget the creative side, where marketing goods and services is also an opportunity.