by Kate Petrovic, Liliana Pino, Tristan Pol, Jacob Piaseckyj, Anthony Pena, Justin Rabin and Gabriel Porges
Many people when they think of “retail automation” may think of humanoid robots patrolling aisles, operating checkout, or restocking items. However, this is pretty far from the actual reality of automation in retail. Most of the so-called “robots” in the retail industry are simple machines and algorithms used to do a tedious or unskilled job. For example, a lot of automation is stocking databases and supply systems that keep the items in stock. These kinds of programs aren’t just in use by the big tech retail companies like Amazon but are in use by traditional retailers like Macy’s. Most of the physical actual autonomous machines in use aren’t restocking or customer service androids, but rather delivery drones or warehouse restocking boxes on wheels that can help move shelves. Retail is still very much a labor-intensive industry, and it still employs many people to help the system run smoothly, but these “robots” are helping bring it into the modern era, one step at a time.
“Two out of three retail workers believe that technology will eventually replace some of their job responsibilities.” Retail workers are getting more and more concerned that they will lose their jobs to robots. The scary truth is that this is very likely. This is already happening at some retail stores with involvement in robots for self-checkout kiosks, computer screens in stores for product lookups, unloading boxes, and other jobs. A recent article posted in the Boston Business Journal, mentions that “Walmart plans to have robots in their store doing simple labor jobs such as scanning shelves, scrubbing floors and other labor tasks that are assigned to employees”. With this new addition, many jobs will be lost to robots. Even though many jobs are at risk, there are many upsides to having robots. For instance, they are able to scan shelves and alert employees when shelves are empty. This saves the time of having someone walk up and down each row and seeing what shelves need restocking. Another example is having robots help with online grocery ordering and pickup. This will allow them to receive the order instantaneously so that they can immediately go to the exact location and collect the groceries and take them to the customer’s vehicle.
“The new generation of robotics, automation tools and technologies have the capabilities to support zero-defect logistic processes to achieve new highs in productivity.” Robots not only decrease the time it would take for a person to complete a task, but also make completing the task more efficient and effective by saving time and money that it would lose buy paying a human worker to do it. Although robots can be incredibly useful, they are extremely costly. “New industrial robotics cost from $50,000 to $80,000. Once application-specific peripherals are added, the robot system costs anywhere from $100,000 to $150,000.” Businesses must decide if it is worth spending all that money for robots, rather than paying employees to do the job.
In order to adapt to the new technology coming educational institutions should offer mandatory basic guideline coding courses so that students can create and develop robots. They should also be introducing students to the new technology in the world, so that they can be more experienced with them when they get into the real world. Blue collar and white collar jobs will start to change over time as technology develops. This makes knowledge of technology extremely important and should be implemented in schools to people at a much younger age. According to a study done by the World Economic Forum, “Robots will handle 52 percent of current work tasks by 2025, almost twice as many as now…” This will cause humans to have to find new roles in industries because their job will be taken over. Studies have shown that humans have adapted very well to the robots in the workplace. Robots are able to do the jobs that some humans cannot physically complete. One of the best examples can be seen in the medical field. In an operating room you see humans using robots to complete laparoscopic or other minimally invasive surgeries in order to get the job done faster. There are also millions of other robots that are used for other procedures that can even complete surgeries on their own now.
China, America, and Japan are leading the way regarding the use of robots in the retail industry. One of China’s richest men, Jack Ma (the owner of Alibaba), is pioneering the way robots are being used in the retail industry and racing to beat his main competitors in Silicon Valley. Jack Ma has even said that even the CEOs may become obsolete, being replaced by robots. Silicon Valley is one of the largest tech startup areas, located in Northern California. Home to Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Tesla, these companies are no strangers to robots and, according to CNN, “are already investing billions in harnessing the power of computers to replace several human tasks. Computers are already beginning to substitute for people in sectors such as agriculture and even medicine, not to mention the race to get driverless cars on the road.” Many believe that this is just the beginning, as more and more companies develop more advanced technology. Japan, a country booming with the newest technology is replacing many service sector employees with robots. Uniqlo, a Japanese retailer that once had a warehouse mainly staffed by people, has now “cut staff at the warehouse by 90%. The warehouse can now also operate 24 hours a day.”, says Quartz. This means saving money on labor and wasting less time, as robots do not need sleep. This is just the beginning as technology will constantly get more advanced as time goes on.
So then, does this mean that in the end, there will be no room for human labor in the retail industry? Not exactly. We aren’t even close to fully automating jobs that require good judgement, store managers, designers, decorators and marketers. These jobs likely aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Even though robots are good at making calculations, the hardware isn’t there yet. The innovations coming from Silicon Valley and China may be replacing a lot of unskilled jobs, but it’s not nearly every job. So, if you have a job in retail that’s heavy on decision-making and doing things that only humans can do, you’re probably safe from getting replaced by robots. At least, for now…