Is automation putting an end to staff within the retail industry?

After Tesco joined Amazon in offering unstaffed checkouts, we asked experts if they think retail will end up fully automated

Is automation putting an end to staff within the retail industry?

Following in the footsteps of Amazon, Tesco is approaching a new checkout-free way for customers to shop in its stores. In an attempt to compete with the Amazon Go store, which has swapped cashiers for shelf sensors, the UK supermarket’s checkout-less system will allow customers to load their shopping into a cart and leave without putting any items through a till. Instead, customers will be encouraged to add their payment details into an app or use in-store screens to show a running bill which will then automatically charge them as they leave the store rather than waiting in long checkout queues.

In order to do this, a collaboration with Israeli startup Trigo Vision has been forged. Artificial intelligence-powered camera networks and sensors are being developed for shop shelves to monitor what customers are putting in their baskets to instantly add it to their bill as they walk around the store.

While Tesco seems to be keeping things under wraps by declining to comment on the new partnership and how many stores are going to be adapted in this way, its new venture into a technological-based shopping experience for its consumers raises the question, does the future of retail require artificial power?

Craig Summers, UK managing director of Manhattan Associates

It’s worth bearing in mind that shopping without checkouts may not be accessible for everyone. Service still ranks above convenience for some of the population and whilst there is a high penetration of smartphones, it doesn’t guarantee every customer will be comfortable or able to shop like this. Although the role of the store associate is changing, the future of retail isn’t about removing people. Technology should be used to underpin the store experience and Tesco clearly feels that going checkout-less will enhance this.

Gavin Masters, industry principal at Maginus

Cashier-less technology is going to become more popular and retailers will start to look at how to implement it in their stores as soon as it becomes commercially viable to do so. There is, however, a mistaken belief that the Amazon Go concept will reduce the number of people required in a retail location, when in fact more and increasingly specialised staff will be needed in stores. As such, there may not be a rush to implement cashier-less experiences until the retail outlook improve or customer demand becomes more overwhelming.

James Dunworth, chairman and co-founder of E-Cigarette Direct

Tesco is a transactional business, where the focus is on efficiency and speed and where the customer usually doesn’t need a great deal of assistance. In those types of businesses, It’s inevitable that competition and an ever-increasing focus on maximising efficiency will lead to an increasingly automated environment. [However], good relationships with the customer is the key to long-term success in these types of businesses and I think it’s unlikely that an automated checkout experience will be able to replace this for many years.

Manu Tyagi, associate partner, retail and consumer goods at Infosys

These advances are unarguably impressive and spell a bright future for the retail industry. Tesco’s move towards checkout-free stores has cemented the fact the way we shop is being amplified by technology – all to adapt to changing consumer behaviour. Despite this, it’s important not to underestimate the power of human interaction. With the future of retail on our doorstep, the real question is how to ensure it remains appealing and convenient for future consumers. 

Fahima Begum
Fahima Begum

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