Comment: Robo-retail vs. humanity at a price?

Can human roles in retail survive the relentless march of the robots? Retail has enjoyed enormous benefits from technology tools over the decades, but has the time come when technology 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, retail robots guide customers and bring goods to the checkout, or your car. Artificial intelligence (AI) personal assistants like Siri and Alexa have become personal shoppers and allow retail algorithms to recommend the perfect item before shoppers even know they want it. The algorithms offer recommendations drawing on vast databases of consumer preferences – with our AI assistants providing our profiles to filter and select the appropriate offers.

By 2022 most customers prefer to shop online – even if they still browse in-store. Mobile and pop-up digital stores and malls display selected items as touchable and sniffable holograms. 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 home, 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 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 brick-and-mortar 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 and produced to fit your schedule 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 making custom clothes while you wait.

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 at the perfect times. 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. 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. This exclusivity leads to super elite retail boutiques where shoppers connect with fashion bloggers and social media artists. Customer service is anything but free, but well worth the cost. Creativity, self-expression and individuality are major retail offerings. In this future, services and guides become increasingly important in the cultivation of satisfying consumer 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. 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:  @fastfuture