Could robots be the end of the retail worker?

Robotics have been disrupting manufacturing for decades now in the form of automating tasks that are either cumbersome, labor-intensive or repetitive. Now robots are poised to now make the leap to retail, replacing everything from the individuals who stock shelves to cashiers. According to Dun & Bradstreet’s First Research tool, operating income on average for retail is 1.2% of sales, which can be a very thin line to manage and stay profitable. As Amazon and its retail might continues to put pressure on retailers of all shapes and sizes, retailers are turning to automation to help them to manage their labor costs, which, after cost of goods sold, for many retailers is one of the most significant expenses.

Recent articles from CNN Money have carried headlines – “Rise of the machines: Fear robots, not China or Mexico” and “Robots could wipe out another 6 million retail jobs,” which highlight the impact that automation will have on the retail workforce. The continued increase in automation helps retailers maintain a competitive edge, however, to the detriment to the average worker. Automation, though, can change the role of the worker from one task that is labor-intensive to other higher-level tasks. In the article, MIT professor Daron Acemoglu uses the example of ATMs. “They perform the jobs that bank tellers once did. But there isn't much evidence that bank employment tanked as a result of ATMs.”

Retailers will need to be prepared to redeploy their workers into different roles with the goal of using the employees to help generate sales for the company. Before automating tasks, companies should carefully consider how automation would impact the customers’ experience and if that fits with the image and values of the company. While, robots won’t be the magic bullet for all companies, they will be part of many companies strategy in the future to help them remain competitive. 

Visit the Our Thoughts On blog for more articles pertaining to the retail industry and visit the Schneider Downs Retail Services page to learn more about services that we offer companies in the industry.

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