When most people talk about automation regarding retail, they want to discuss the impact it could have on the labor force. And while there is some real concern in this area, it’s fairly overblown. Automation in retail is overwhelmingly positive and will yield significant returns for both employers and employees.
The Benefits of Automation
The explosion of business technology over the last decade has been characterized by an intense focus on automation and efficiency. This is thanks in large part to advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and the internet of things (IoT). And when you look at automation in retail, the benefits are clear:
- More consistency. Brands are built on consistency. Without it, customers lose trust and don’t know how to properly calibrate their expectations. With automation, achieving consistency no longer requires significant manual input.
- Reduced costs. While it costs money to implement automation, most of these solutions do a decent job of reducing ongoing operational expenses. This positive ROI can make a big difference for businesses that are working within strict budgeting parameters.
- Best of both worlds. Automation gives small businesses the opportunity to remain small and nimble, while still being able to compete with larger organizations that have bigger payrolls and more bells and whistles.
How Automation is Being Used
Most every retailer uses automation in different capacities, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find any successful retailer not using it in some form. Whether it’s brick-and-mortar, e-commerce or a blend of the two, here’s a look at what’s happening in the real world:
1 – Occitan Imports: SaaS Applications
Occitan Imports is a home-based, woman-owned business that sells French tablecloths and Laguiole cutlery. For the team running the business, software-based automation is the glue that keeps everything together.
“We are highly automated, integrated, and optimized, from a technology perspective,” founder Laurence Bertone explains. “We rely on a blend of inter-connected SaaS applications that streamline time-consuming tasks and allow us to focus on growing our business rather than managing our IT infrastructure. If it weren’t for this level of automation, we wouldn’t be able to stay in business.”
2 – Lowe’s Home Improvement: Interactive Robot
Lowes, the popular home improvement store, has spent time testing a fleet of multilingual robots that can greet customers, ask them what they need, and help find items.
Interactive robots like this are expensive but could become the way of the future. This wouldn’t necessarily eliminate the need for having salespeople on the floor, but would free them up to focus on more important tasks (rather than just directing people to the correct aisles).
3 – North Face: Product Recommendation Chatbot
Expect to see a significant rise in the number chatbots in the retail industry in 2018. We’ve already experienced how some brands are using these platforms.
North Face is a great example. They use a mobile-optimized microsite to host their product recommendation chatbot that narrows shoppers’ choices via a series of questions and then matches them with specific options. In addition to hosting on microsites, some retailers have found it useful to use SMS-based chatbots that can be accessed while customers are in physical stores.
Putting It All Together
While there will certainly be cases where automation robs employees of jobs and negatively impacts the workforce, the overall result is better businesses and more opportunities for innovation. And when you have larger profit margins and increased innovation, you can bet there will be jobs and positions for skilled workers.
Instead of stressing out over the possible risks, retailers should be enjoying the many benefits automation provides.
About the writer: Anna Johansson is a freelance writer, researcher, and business consultant. A columnist for Entrepreneur.com, Forbes.com and more, Anna specializes in entrepreneurship, technology, and social media trends. Follow her on Twitter @Number1AnnaJo and LinkedIn.
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