There are some pretty frightening statistics out there about the future of the retail workforce. According to the British Retail Consortium there could be 900,000 fewer roles in the industry by 2025, while Deloitte believes that a third of all jobs in the UK are at risk of automation.
While these make compelling headlines, they is also huge cause for concern among employees at all levels. Will my job be the one to go? How will my role change if my colleagues are no longer needed? What will the world look like when machines are running the retail organisation?
It’s easy to get swept away in the idea of a robotic future, where all human contact has been replaced by a series of smart devices, but that simply won’t happen. If anything, automation will make life better for the retail workforce – because Artificial Intelligence (AI) will enable staff to work smarter than they ever have before.
Man versus machine?
The future of retail is AI enablement; automating and enhancing processes that are best carried out by machines, allowing people within the organisation to focus on their strengths, particularly in customer-facing roles.
There is no denying that some jobs are performed better by technology. Machines can process more data than is manually possible, and manage the complexities of multiple influencing factors and decisions. Not only that, AI solutions have the capacity to predict what will happen next, in order to improve forecasting and demand planning.
The result of this is better decision making by retailers on a daily basis, which generates improved availability, happier customers, reduced waste, and fewer markdowns.
However, while this may be enough to run an online operation or replenish better in store, machines alone cannot create a great customer experience in-store. Front-line staff are the face of a brand; they are the ambassadors, supporters and guiders that enable customers to forge an emotional connection with a particular retailer. And more often than not, it is this emotional connection that keeps customers coming back.
The best of both worlds
What AI needs to do, therefore, is enhance the capabilities of the retail workforce, rather than seek to replace it. By taking some of the more mundane, data-driven processes out of people’s hands, strategic decision makers and customer-facing staff have more time to concentrate on added value tasks.
For store associates in particular, AI can make customer service much easier. For example, better demand planning means fewer disappointing moments when shoppers are led to the correct shelf, only to find the item they require is out-of-stock.
In fact, rather than being something to fear, Blue Yonder has found that front-line staff are keen to embrace the benefits of artificial intelligence. During our recent Replenishment Optimization solution roll-out at supermarket chain Morrisons, store personnel were pushing for new functionalities to be deployed even quicker, as they could see the immediate positive impact on their daily working life.
Man and machine, working together
There is no avoiding the fact that some roles will fall by the wayside as the level of automation within retail businesses increases. However, this will create room for a new breed of hybrid working, in which technology and human skill come together to enhance the customer experience.
Already we’re seeing store associates increase productivity and enhance customer service through connected devices like tablets and smartphones at the shelf edge. AI will innovate the operational side of retail, to support staff with better replenishment models, more accurate demand forecasting and more effective decisions. It’s a win/win scenario.