Robots Poised To Take Over Retail

Automation has hit the manufacturing industry hard, costing the industry millions of factory jobs — yet it has the potential to hit retail even harder.

According to a new study by financial services firm Cornerstone Capital Group, robots are poised to capture between 6 million and 7.5 million jobs over the next 10 years across retail and other sectors. That breaks down to 38 percent of the current 16 million-strong retail workforce.

The change will likely start with cashiers — “one of the most easily automatable jobs in the economy,” the study said. That means anyone who hasn’t learned to use the self-checkout line at the grocery store had better get used to it soon.

This report is bad news for feminists, since nearly three-fourths of the world’s cashiers are women. And it’s especially bad news for the U.S., where a larger percentage of workers are performing more routine functions compared to employees of the same field in, say, Japan or the U.K.

Even in the finance sector, U.S. employees are likelier to hold a position that could be easily automated, such as bank tellers in small towns, whereas U.K. employees are likelier to hold positions that require more critical thinking, necessitating a higher level of education and expertise.

Compared to America’s 38 percent, the U.K. is looking at just 30 percent job loss risk due to automation; and in Japan it’s 21 percent.

Back in the retail sector, the days of robots stocking shelves are still a long way off, according to Cornerstone’s Head of Research, John Wilson. But fewer people will be needed to handle inventory as automation helps make the process more efficient.

Already, many warehouses are using robots to speed up the delivery process, with Little Orange robots (made by Hikvision) processing 200,000 items per day at China’s Shentong Delivery Company. Amazon, the Gap and other domestic companies are leveraging similar technology with robots made by Kiva.

Stores will keep human employees on the payroll for customer service roles, like helping customers find products on the floor. But even that job isn’t safe from the inexorable tide of technological progress. Sales jobs will become less necessary, as more consumers use in-store smartphone apps and touchscreen computers to locate products.

Retail has already taken a substantial hit due to overbuilding and eCommerce, said Wilson. “But going forward, job losses will really be about automation.”

John Hawksworth, PwC’s chief economist in the U.K., projects that unemployment could be the least of our worries. The changing workforce and restructured job market could create as many jobs as it destroys, but they’ll be at the other end of the spectrum, requiring workers that design, produce and work alongside the robots.

“The gap between rich and poor could get even wider,” Hawksworth predicted.


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