A robot future? Not yet…

12 October 2017

By Jeff Ingold


When it comes to retail technology, the established media narrative is simple: automation means unemployment. “Four in five retail jobs at risk of ‘vanishing’ to automation”, shouts City AM. “Millions of UK workers at risk of being replaced by robots”, warns the Guardian.

And the apocalyptic headlines pose a significant challenge for companies working in the retail tech space. How do you tell a story that emphasises the considerable benefits automation offers businesses and consumers, without reinforcing doomsday suspicions about a robot-future?

The answer lies in crafting a message to answer the fears that machines will mean fewer jobs – focusing instead on how this technology will actually pave the way for better jobs.

If we look back at when ATMs were first introduced in the 1970s, many commentators predicted they would cause mass unemployment in the banking sector. Yet, the opposite happened. The number of bank staff actually increased. While handling cash became less important, marketing and interpersonal contact came to the fore.

Automation and AI are set to have a similar effect on the retail sector. This is because the real retail robot revolution is not Amazon Go’s cashier-free store in Seattle. No – the most significant innovations are taking place in the mundane world of back office processes.

But this isn’t as sexy or exciting as fearmongering about bots replacing workers, is it? Perhaps not, but what’s important is recognising the potential for the gains from automation to be shared more widely across society. Manual and routine tasks are ripe for automation, while social skills are, by definition, fundamentally human.

Scalable, cloud-based automation systems from companies like Brightpearl allow retailers to eliminate repetitive (if not, outright boring), high-volume tasks such as processing sales orders and tracking deliveries – freeing up employee time to focus on attracting and retaining customers.

By removing the monotony of many day-to-day jobs, retail technology supports retailers in empowering their workers to concentrate on higher value, more rewarding and creative work. Successful retailers will be those that are able to incorporate this new technology to improve customer experiences, rather than just eliminate roles. Advances in retail tech can open the doors to better jobs and boost employee productivity.

But this isn’t the story many businesses or consumers are hearing about retail technology. And so it’s our job to work with retail tech platforms to help educate media, retailers, and workers about the real opportunities that lie ahead for those willing to adapt to this new world.