Why automation needn't threaten us
The retail sector has already been shaped profoundly by technological change, from online fulfilment to warehouse robots and in-store automated technology.
But what does this mean for retail employment and what effects will it have on the high street?
The RICS NI Commercial Market Survey for Q2 2019 indicated that results for the retail sector were in decline across the board -in demand, investment inquiries and capital value expectations for its properties.
It was suggested that changes in high street shopper habits continue to contribute as such and it is now expected that the rise of technological advancements that are increasing automation and the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics will further affect the sector. How exactly, is what remains to be seen.
While technological advancement is generally welcomed as a means of driving productivity, concerns exist about job losses. However, reports of entire roles and occupations being lost are arguably overstated.
Firstly, not every task performed by humans can be readily automated, while secondly, higher productivity gained through automation arguably frees up human resources to be invested elsewhere.
This changing nature has already been demonstrated with checkout operator roles in supermarkets evolving to include management of the self-service checkout bays. Even the checkout-free format of future grocery stores, such as Amazon Go, require human employees to address customer queries and fix tech issues. The proportion of all jobs at high risk of automation in the UK and Ireland is approximately 30%. By comparison, wholesale and retail jobs at high risk of automation is around 40%.
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Waiting staff, shelf fillers and elementary sales occupations were ranked by ONS as the occupations at highest probability of automation. Yet there has been a 16% increase in waiting staff over the past decade, despite the introduction of self-service kiosks and the rise of Deliveroo type services.
There is no doubt that increasing automation will further impact retail. For example, Ocado and Amazon have invested heavily in warehouse robots to increase productivity and reduce cost. In-store, investment in AI is providing a more unique customer experience to increase dwell time and spend - a positive for the high street.
Societal acceptance for replacing low skilled human labour with robotics in the retail warehousing environment is high. By comparison, in clothing stores, particularly premium brands, quality experience and expert customer service from humans continues to be valued most highly. Automation and AI in this setting is more likely to take the form of smart fitting rooms and further harnessing of big data and analytics to target customers.
The Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, points out that robots can replace hands and heads, but not 'heart'. We have already seen examples where companies have removed automation to ensure their services provide 'heart'. In 2015 Morrisons removed their self-checkouts because customers indicated they preferred the social interaction of a check-out operator.
Online only bank First Direct makes a virtue of not using automated menus and having humans answer customer calls. Retail is primed for further automation. The extent to which this is implemented will be setting-dependent and set to be significantly greater in retail warehousing than customer-facing high street stores.
Humans and technological advancement can be complementary rather than divisive. New technology can boost productivity and new roles can be higher skilled, better paid and make better use of human interactions. But it's up to us humans to ensure that we make these new technologies work for us and in the public interest, and not the other way round.
- Criona Collins is a member of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), and head of retail agency in Belfast for Lambert Smith Hampton