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Why automation is a crucial opportunity for retailers

It doesn’t take an expert to tell you how prevalent automation is right now in British industries. We’ve all ‘self-scanned’ in the supermarket, engaged with online help desks and know that the industrial production line is now more a robotic parade than a human process.

But, while there’s no denying that the adoption of automated processes has begun, there is still much debate as to what extent it’s affecting each industry, and which processes are most – and least – likely to be replaced by bots. This is the ambition of our Automation Index, launched this month: to paint a clear picture of the automation panorama. By polling a cross-section of business leaders, we were able to ascertain why so many UK firms are adopting intelligent computing processes, how they are doing it; and ultimately, to comprehend what this means to employees and customers.

The retail picture

As one might imagine, the retail sector is confidently riding the automation wave. Nearly nine in ten retail sector chiefs (88%) told us that they had incorporated robotic automation or AI processes into their companies in some form over the last six months.

But, why are retail executives embracing automation so wholeheartedly?

In an era of unprecedented online growth, many retailers find themselves needing to strike a balance between embracing the digital age’s many opportunities and not deserting bricks and mortar outlets. Automation is crucial to achieving this.

Customers who do still meander down the high street are acclimatised to a level of agility from retailers that would have seemed impossible ten years ago. They are used to instant answers, sleek marketing, and fast processes. So for traditional retailers, new tactics are needed to bring customers through the doors. Discounts and promotions, emblazoned on incongruous neon signs do little to attract these modern shoppers. Instead, succinct push notifications with today’s deals to customers’ devices can drive footfall. Inside the store, self scan aisles have become a mainstay. Queues are cut, and customer satisfaction is boosted. And once home, should products need replacing, customers can check real-time stock updates before returning to the store.

Simply put, automation delivers the agility and the efficiency modern customers demand.  Incorporating such processes into every step of the customer journey is therefore crucial to retailers who want to move with the times.

The end of human interaction?

But the flipside, does this spell bad news for the retail sector’s traditional workforce? Far from it. We believe that automation does not represent the replacement of one workforce with another. Rather, robotic processing, AI and human work are in no way mutually exclusive.

It’s rare to encounter a consumer who would like their retail experience to revolve around solely interacting with a bot. For every tech maverick that eagerly awaits the opening of a fully digitised, unmanned Amazon grocery store; there are a hundred customers who still desire a personal retail world.

Yes, customers want to use self-checkouts, but they also require real interactions. In store, face-to-face advice is still a core pillar of the retail world. Similarly online, as time-efficient as chatbots are, the option of speaking to a phone operator when faced with uncertainty remains immensely valuable to customers. By nature of being ‘artificial’ intelligence, the challenge at hand is not to replace the human workforce; the challenge is to enhance it, and to support it.

So, automation represents not a threat, but an opportunity, and one that the retail sector cannot afford to miss. It means that traditional retailers can keep the pace with the digital era and that firms of all sizes can deliver compelling and engaging customer experiences. Ultimately, automation means that retailers can offer customers the dexterity that the market demands, whilst not having to sacrifice the sector’s human touch.  


By Rakesh Sangani, CEO at social enterprise management consultancy Proservartner

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