Posted May 3, 2023

Evolving Technology and Retail Jobs

By Gigi Tino

Retail is an ever-changing industry, and no one knows that better than retail workers themselves. One of the biggest challenges the industry has faced over the past several years is an ongoing labor shortage. Additionally there is a growing concern regarding new development in retail technology and how it will impact retail jobs. Technology has had a major impact on the history of the retail industry; as technology grows even more advanced with AI, retailers and workers alike are determining how to implement it the right way.

There is no denying that new technology will have a significant impact on retail jobs. Though companies across all industries are looking to adopt technological advancements, retail companies in particular are looking to technology for assistance in operations. About 87% of retail leaders are reporting concerns with the labor shortage for 2023 according to a recent study conducted by Fourth. Additionally, 94% of employees in the survey reported concerns with the impact this labor shortage will have on their roles. Workforce technology is a promising tool for retail workers and employers alike in combating negative consequences of the tight labor market. Retail workers reported that their most-desired technological improvements included: apps that allow easy communication to employers, improved point of sale technology, online paycheck and real-time earned wage access, digital scheduling, and warehouse automation.

With the help of automated technology, many processes such as inventory management, order processing, and data analysis have become automated. This can reduce the workload of retail employees when it comes to mundane duties and allow them to focus on more important tasks. Computer vision, technology that enables computers and other devices to recognize objects and process relevant data, offers retail workers instant access to any compliance issues or errors on the shelves through a tablet or other device, eliminating the need for walking up and down aisles and spending time searching for them. POS systems have made it easier for retail workers to process transactions quickly and efficiently. They can also track customer orders, manage loyalty programs, and monitor inventory levels in real-time. Mobile devices have enabled retail workers to access important information such as inventory levels and customer data from anywhere in the store. Even the retail warehouse worker will have useful AI tools in the form of voice-directed devices. Vests with voice-directed devices will give warehouse workers a hands-free way to manage their tasks. These devices play a major role in streamlining the entire team and supplemental technology.

As technology continues to evolve, the skills needed for retail jobs are also changing. For example, retailers are increasingly looking for workers who are comfortable using technology and can help customers navigate online shopping platforms. This means that retail workers will need to learn new skills relating to AI technology or face a higher level of competition for jobs. This can act as both a positive change or daunting one for retail workers. For example, a shelf-scanning robot might take over what is commonly part of a department manager’s role, but the resulting efficiency means stockers can cross-train to take on other in-store tasks and have a much more dynamic role. On the other hand, self-checkout machines are becoming more common in stores, which means there may be fewer cashiers needed in the future. While this has potential to eliminate positions, it also has potential to reframe them. Retail workers must prepare to be flexible as jobs change and evolve with technology.

A 2019 study from McKinsey estimated that while about half of retail job activities can be automated in some way, only about five percent of jobs can be fully automated. This means that there will still be a crucial need for retail workers despite any AI supplements adopted by a company. Many leaders in both tech and retail underscore the importance of adapting new technology slowly and carefully. Technology should be added progressively with a heavy emphasis on employee feedback. One retailer taking a well-thought approach with extra care for its employees is Walmart. Walmart’s CEO Doug McMillon is adamant that the company be “people-led and tech-empowered.” Rather than replacing jobs, the company aims to implement technology in a way that acts as an extra pair of hands to the workers. Reskilling will be an important step for all retail workers to adapt to their changing jobs and one that many may find challenging. Learning new skills relating to AI and other technology creates an entirely new value for workers ready to take on the challenge. Even with sophisticated AI technology, there are many jobs that still require the “human” aspect to make things run smoothly, and that is where a retail worker’s value comes into play.

Overall, technology poses both positive and negative effects on retail workers. Technology has provided retail workers with the tools and resources they need to be more productive and efficient in their jobs. However, it can also lead to heavy automation and changing job requirements. AI technology is meant to be a constructive tool to supplement the retail job, not replace it. Retail workers who are able to adapt to these changes and learn new skills may be better positioned to succeed in the industry.