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Are Retail Associates Dying Out?

by | Jun 19, 2017

Are Retail Associates Dying Out?

Will near-future automation render retail workers obsolete?

Yes and no.

Let me explain:

Come 2025, 85% of retail sales will still take place in brick-and-mortar stores …

McKinsey & Company, a global research firm, says that physical shopping isn’t going away anytime soon. The majority of consumer dollars will be spent in stores—rather than online—for the foreseeable future.

That said, the journey shoppers take to arrive at a purchasing decision is ever-changing. Automation is playing a big role in that change.

“Automation is coming and retailers must adapt and adopt,” said Kate Ancketill, CEO of GDR Creative Intelligence, a consultancy focused on innovation and emerging trends in retail, leisure and hospitality. “There is a race on to lead in AI and there is a big upside if you’re the disruptor.”

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Automation: The Human Cost

Automation will help retailers be more efficient and consistent, more productive. That much is clear. But automating tasks once reserved for humans will also create painful redundancies …

Less than a decade from now, the British Retail Consortium anticipates that automation will eliminate a third of all retail jobs.

Imagine shopping at a store where robotic employees outnumber human ones. It’s coming. In fact, were very close:

Over the next decade, innovations like these will replace low-skilled workers and, in the process, will raise the bar for employees that do make the cut.

The result: Retail associates won’t become obsolete, but as time goes on, they will be held to a much higher, much more sophisticated standard.

Retail Associates: The Future Standard

Ten years from now, there’ll be fewer retail workers, meaning those that remain will be the cream of the crop. They’ll possess skills that can’t be automated—at least not for a while.

For example, the next generation of in-demand retail associates will:

1. Be digital natives:

If you grew up using the Internet, computers and smartphones, you’re a digital native. If you didn’t, you’re likely a digital immigrant.

Think of it not as a generational distinction but, rather, one determined by background: The more digital experience you have, the quicker you’ll be able to adopt new technologies and concepts.

A decade from now, tech-driven retailers will implicitly seek out these tech-savvy people.

2. Have tacit knowledge:

There’s two types of knowledge:

A. Explicit knowledge is rooted in facts. It can answer questions like:

  • Which aisle has ice cream?
  • What is your return policy?
  • Where is the #FF5733-color paint?

B. Tacit knowledge is more complicated. It’s rooted in skills, ideas, and experiences. It can answer questions like:

  • Which ice cream tastes the best?
  • Why is your return policy structured this way?
  • What is the best method for applying #FF5733-color paint?

A robot can answer explicit questions as well as a person can. But only a person can answer tacit questions like a person.

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3. Be coachable:

Coachable employees are receptive people.

They’re good at receiving feedback and constructive criticism. They excel at taking direction, at shifting their perspective to embrace a new way of thinking. They’re good at these things because they recognize their weaknesses, they know there’s a lot to learn yet.

Being coachable is a revered trait among employees. It’s how good people become exceptional.

Therefore, as the retail-employment market thins out and jobs become more in-demand, coachability will be a determining factor in each hire.

The Gist:

Robots and other forms of automation in the retail sector are steadily replacing human labor.

So what does the future hold for retail associates? Will there even be a future?

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