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Retail automation: So are the robots really coming to take retail jobs?

  • News
  • August 10, 2019
  • Rachel Helyer Donaldson
Retail automation: So are the robots really coming to take retail jobs?

As part of a feature article on how automation will affect retailers, we examined whether the headlines are true - are robots really coming for our jobs?

Last year the AI Forum and MBIE co-funded a report,Shaping A Future New Zealand, to look at the impact of AI in Aotearoa in the coming decades. AI will displace just 10 per cent of jobs over the next 40 years, it concluded. 

By contrast, a 2018 report by Infometrics, From Education to Employment, estimated that the “automation revolution” would account for the loss of 31 per cent of jobs by 2036. 

Reid says the AI Forum’s research correlates how other disruptive technologies have taken decades to make an impact.  

Around half of small businesses in New Zealand have no online presence, he notes, and the internet has been around for 30 years.

Roles re-shape themselves, he adds. “We can expect that the nature of jobs will change... as we see new technology comes into the economy it creates new skills, new opportunities and demand for new skills as well. 

“People need to continue to learn new skills throughout their lives and their employers and the government probably has a responsibility to look at that.” 

Rather than outright job losses, Vredenburg says that it is “more a case of retraining and adaptation. Redeployment of skills from more rote work that can be digitised to technology support and augmentation roles. 

“However, the effect of automation on society as a whole through a potential increase in unemployment rates needs to be considered.”

Context matters, she adds. There are still instances, such as luxury retail, where customers prefer to shop in store rather than online.

For now, she says, “I don’t think it will be a definitive choice between tech and touch. It will be a combination of the two that creates the best customer experience, ideally using the best of what both have to offer. 

“As technology continues to advance, current automation such as self-service checkouts will continue to improve using different technological touchpoints throughout the retail experience. For example, not necessarily having a designated ‘check out area’ but mobile checkouts or checkout points in changerooms.”

Cox agrees. There is a space for fully automated retail stores for convenience but humans still have “an incredibly important role” to make retail a destination event. 

“ You’re not going to have the same rapport with a robot as you would with a human. If you look at the role that a barista plays in a coffee shop, you will go to that cafe to be served by that particular barista because of what they bring to your day. 

“That’s the kind of experience people need to think about, in every level of retail.” 

This story originally appeared in NZ Retail issue 762 June/July 2019

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