Automation, AI and the future of humans in retail
Talk about the role of automation and artificial intelligence (AI) with anyone in the retail industry and you’ll hear a considerable amount of concern. People are worried that this new technology will put them out of a job.
It’s easy to argue that we’re going through another kind of industrial revolution and that, although technology is changing how we work in ways that are sometimes hard to accept society will adapt given time. But the lived reality can be more daunting to consider.
Automation and AI have great potential for helping retailers run the kind of repetitive tasks – such as reporting – that can eat up precious human-hours. Automation will also practically eradicate errors that are abundant in processes delivered by humans. McKinsey’s Global Institute report points out that women’s jobs will be amongst those hit hardest by the change, as they tend to dominate the sort of roles that could be automated in the near future.
However, retailers don’t have to lose employees to automation. Automation often works best when it’s supporting people in their roles rather than replacing them. Freeing human talent of mundane tasks releases their time and allows retailers to explore the creative potential that employees can offer the business.
When you consider that 86% of U.S. consumers prefer to deal with humans rather than chatbots, it’s abundantly clear that there is still a vital role for people to play in the age of automation.
Automation in a retail support role
Automated systems can give customer service agents the tools to provide the kind of customer experience that people can’t get from self-service machines or robots.
Human customer service agents have the creativity, autonomy and freedom to handle customer queries in a more natural way than a machine could. They can show empathy, and look for ways to resolve problems even when the rules they’ve been given are strict. People are empowered to go above and beyond for a customer. Yet, to do this, they need instant access to live data – giving them the information they need to make the right choices and recommendations.
Automated tools provide context to customer queries by giving customer service agents access to relevant records from previous interactions. These systems ensure that the information the agent has is accurate and relevant. In some cases, it can even predict the outcome of the call.
Burberry, for example, uses a mix of in-store technology and human customer service specialists to make its customers’ shopping experiences efficient and fun. The retailer allows customers to pay via the iPads that customer service staff carry around the shop (which helps customers avoid having to queue), and customers can use the iPads to log in to their Burberry account, which lets the store provide them with a personalised service.
As consumers, a personalised shopping experience is becoming an expectation, rather than a luxury experience. For example, research has found that 72% of consumers said that they only engage with personalised marketing content. Internet shopping and digital entertainment services like Amazon, Netflix and YouTube use recommendation algorithms that serve us with curated products and content, saving us from wading through a glut of content that we’re not interested in.
There’s no doubt that as retailers introduce more features that use automated systems, the role of human assistants will change. However, there will always be a place for the skills, experience, creativity and empathy of humans in the retail sector. Many retailers will create new roles that leverage the creative talents of humans and use automation to enhance existing roles, as a supportive tool, rather than an outright replacement of people.
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