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Alexandra Biesada

Robots In, Humans Out: Automation in the Retail Arena

by Alexandra Biesada | Dun & Bradstreet Editor

December 15, 2016 | No Comments »

News that Amazon delivered its first package — weighing 4.7 pounds and containing a Fire TV Stick and bag of popcorn — by drone last week to a customer in rural England likely wasn’t cheered by delivery drivers.

It’s also unlikely that cashiers in Japan were happy to learn that Panasonic is testing a checkout machine that scans and bags items automatically — no human touch required — at a Lawson convenience store in Osaka.

In the US, Amazon is creating a stir with Amazon Go, its new convenience-store concept that does away with checkout lines, cash, and cashiers. The online giant is also exploring using robots to stock shelves in its stores and warehouses.

Cashiers, baggers, stockers, and delivery drivers have joined the list of professions vulnerable to loss to robots in the not-too-distant future. Indeed, robots are expected to eliminate 6% of all US jobs by 2021, according to market research firm Forrester. For retail specifically, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics expects employment for cashiers in the US to grow by only 2% between 2014 and 2024, well below the predicted 7% growth in employment across all occupations and below the 5% forecast for retail-sales workers.

The new Panasonic checkout system, which features a special shopping basket with a retractable base, detects the items in the basket, calculates the bill, and then drops the goods into a plastic bag ready to be carried off. Customers pay with cash or plastic. The folks at Lawson cite a “scarcity of labor” as a problem Panasonic can help solve. That may be true in Japan and elsewhere. But if the future shapes up the way Forrester expects, the US is more likely to be facing a labor surplus (read high unemployment) rather than shortage.

Industry Impact: Increasingly sophisticated retail automation systems are a potential boon to retailers facing labor shortages and a bust for cashiers, baggers, and other retail workers who may find themselves out of work.

Alexandra Biesada shops every day, whether she wants to or not, and pines for the days when it was strictly a recreational activity. She has covered the retail beat since 2001. Follow her on Twitter.

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Photo courtesy of Amazon.

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