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GUEST COMMENT The autonomous workforce: the impact of AI on store staff

AI is transforming retail across every part of the supply chain

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is transforming retail across every part of the supply chain – and with talk of everything from Amazon’s ’till-free’ stores to Japan’s Softbank Mobile Store Pepper robot, a virtual in-store assistant, it’s no surprise that there is fear around how automation will change or even replace the role of store staff entirely.

As AI continues to develop and is implemented within the core of businesses, traditional roles are becoming increasingly automated, with PWC predicting that over 10 million UK workers could potentially be replaced by robots within 15 years.

With the capabilities of AI technology to automate predictable, non-personal tasks, it is inevitable that certain roles will become fully automated, particularly lower-skilled roles.

Already AI technologies have been widely implemented across manufacturing and supply chain to increase efficiencies, cut costs and reduce lead times. Now traditional retailers are entering these new territories to level the playing field and compete with ecommerce giants, which have been leveraging big data and powerful AI algorithms to transform the retail space for some time. As a result, retailers are adopting AI and robotics to automate various parts of the retail value chain, adapting and integrating these technologies into their products and in-store environments.

Amazon has taken an AI-inspired approach as it moves from ecommerce into physical retail, leveraging data science to help power in-store capabilities, reshaping not just its operations but the entire concept of bricks and mortar.

Earlier this year, the online giant opened its ’cashierless’ retail concept store, “Amazon Go” in Seattle – customers simply select products from the shelves and leave without the need to check-out, thanks to AI that tracks their shopping activity. Meanwhile, the Softbank Pepper robot has been designed to identify emotions and select behaviours best suited to the situation to enhance customer engagement.

But, despite these examples, it is unlikely that AI will ever replace store staff completely. Anchor, England’s largest not-for-profit provider of housing and care for older people reported 24% of this demographic are deterred from shopping by automated checkouts. What’s more, the costs involved mean it is unlikely that robots will move beyond being a novelty attraction with retailers forgoing human staff altogether.

Customers seek valuable in-store experiences that are both personal and physical, demanding experience and personalisation, and seeking both advice and opinions from store associates as a trusted source of knowledge – something they are unlikely to do from a robot or kiosk, no matter what AI capabilities it has.

AI provides a huge opportunity for organisations – and their workforce. Retailers should now look to evolve these technologies to support their current workforce, rather than replace it. However, it will be important for retailers to understand the performance and value that store staff provide.

In many ways, demonstration of value is already a problem for retailers. Store associates perform a wide range of different roles that contribute to sales, such as basket filling, cross and upselling and conversion as well as non-sales tasks, such as refilling shelves and stock control.

We already hear retailers say that their part-time staff convert more sales and deliver better ROI when compared to full-time staff. When we dig deeper, part-time staff are generally recruited to work at busy times such as weekends, so automatically appear to be the better performing group.

Meanwhile, full-time staff spend a large percentage of time during quieter times, fulfilling non-sales focused tasks, such as stock control or processing online returns. While these tasks are essential for delivering high levels of customer service there is little understanding of the time they take or value attributed to these functions.

Once again, technology is the key to understanding this value and how it contributes to the business.

Retail Workforce Management allows retailers to drive and track employee performance. This technology moves beyond simple time and attendance and allows retailers to optimise scheduling and task management to set goals, targets and measure performance in order to give everybody across all levels of the organisation the visibility they need to make real-time changes to their working practices.

Head office should be using data to layer information that gives insight into how the business as a whole is performing. In most bricks-and-mortar stores, we find that more than 50% of sales take place over just 20 hours each week. When retailers track sales trends on an hour by hour, week by week basis they are able to ensure their top performing sales associates are scheduled at the right time to increase their bottom line – with no investment in complex AI technologies and no change in labour costs.

And, while robots may have algorithms that predict what someone is likely to buy based on past purchases, they do not have the nuance required to advise customers on which products to buy based on individual needs or taste.

The adoption of AI technologies throughout the supply chain should be done to focus on removing inefficiencies and automating processes where no human interaction is required; something that will allow store staff to focus on those tasks where their contribution will be of even greater value to the business and its bottom line.

Author: Chris Nobile, director at StoreForce

Image credit: Fotolia

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