#RetailEXPO19: Robots to take – but also create – jobs on the high street

In a panel discussing whether robots will replace humans in retail, three industry experts debated how essential AI, automation and robotics will be to the retail industry and discussed how robots will change the role of the human.

Panellists included:

Is there a sustained, or even growing, need for human interaction in retail?

Karen Harris: Yes, on the very front line. There are specific moments when human interaction is particularly important. For example, when first time mums go to John Lewis. In this example, they are looking for advice. These moments need to be emotive and full of human reassurance. These moments aren’t about sales, they are about experience, and that’s something that robots can’t do.

Jonathon Boiria: There are a lot of spaces where human contact is still really important. But for people that require quick and seamless service, robots are great. Robots provide a fast and immediate interaction consistent with how people would shop on an eCommerce platform. Robots like Pepper add a nice and natural embodiment of service that’s not as cold as a basic screen.

Is it realistic that robots will take humans jobs?

Alec Sutherland: Certain jobs will be taken by robots, but other jobs will be created by robotics. Jobs like fraud checks, for example, that are highly repetitive and need consistency and attention could be done by robots instead of humans. In those cases, the team can then be redeployed to offer other value.

Jonathon Boiria: The first wave of that has already happened. Think about self-checkouts, scan-as-you-shop, point-of-sales systems. There are painful, tedious jobs that can be taken by robots. We are increasingly seeing Pepper replacing screens and tablets. Robots however can go beyond that and can advise consumers about the products they could purchase.

Karen Harris: Automation has already taken jobs and it will take more. But the flip side is that new jobs will be created. Automation enables scale and as AI becomes better, it affects retail in a positive way. Thinking about robotics and humans as two separate things is not the way the future will go. Robotics will be about robots augmenting humans. The future of retail will be augmented humans.

How exactly will that work?

Jonathon Boiria:  We need to let humans convert a sale that a robot and technology has started. The robot will prepare the sale, and humans will convert it.

Alec Sutherland: From the perspective of the retailer’s back office, a lot of manual inefficient processes should and could be automated fully.

Karen Harris: Voice and computer vision are the two areas where we’re most advanced.

What impact does automation have on the customer experience? Is it a bottom-line booster?

Alec Sutherland: Retailers will see it as a bottom-line booster because they’ll see cost savings. From a business perspective, bottom-line cost is first priority. Not affecting the customer experience is the secondary priority.

Jonathon Boiria: You can automate a service but not an experience. You have to take into account how the shopper journey works through the store. We look at how Pepper fits into that. We measure the ROI of Pepper by looking at sales, customer experience and efficiency.

Karen Harris: I think it will have a big impact on the bottom line, it already is. We’ll automate more processes – there’s currently a lot of inefficiency in the system – and there’s a lot of opportunity to be more efficient.

Will AI and automation become essential rather than an innovative luxury?

Alec Sutherland: It almost certainly has already. From an AI perspective, it’s around customer expectation. They’ll want the same level of integration they have at home (Alexa and Google Home) when they go shopping.

Karen Harris: We often can’t do the basics in retail. It’s not a seamless customer experience. Some retailers don’t have the investment in the business to redo legacy systems. Look at the retailers that put self-checkouts outside the changing rooms, which was a great idea, but customers couldn’t get the security tags off which created a bad experience. If we don’t get automation right, it’s worse than not doing it at all. We’re miles away from where we need to be – not through lack of will, but through lack of investment.

Jonathon Boiria: Industry has faced a massive transformation from eCommerce where automation and AI have played a critical role. The challenge is that by design, physical space is difficult to transform as quickly as you can transform online. That’s where automation and technology plays a big role. Online we’re already there, in the physical store we’re not there yet, but we will be because that’s how physical stores will compete.

Do you think popular culture has created resistance to AI & robotics?

Alec Sutherland: As long as we explain the benefits of robotics and what they can bring, there’s huge opportunity.

Karen Harris: Ultimately we are social. If you look at the explosion of influencers – who could have predicted that hundreds of millions of people would be obsessed with influencers? Look at the power of Instagram and the proposition that sales will go through influencers. You could debate that influencers will become the biggest retailers in the world.

Which area of retail will most benefit from robotics?

Alec Sutherland: I would see most processes benefitting from a level of automation, which in future, would be augmented by machine learning.

Karen Harris: I would say ecommerce and personalisation in the ecommerce space. It’s happening already. AI, automation, personalisation and giving customers what you didn’t even know you wanted.

Jonathon Boiria: For me, it’s about providing automation in store. You want the same consistency and experience that you get online.