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When it comes to robots vs humans, it's a relay not a race in retail


It feels like you can’t go a day, or visit a tech blog without some mention of automation. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robots are ever present buzzwords in 2019. The retail landscape is no exception, in fact I’d argue that it’s even more ripe for change than many other industries. Laybuy launched into a time where there is growth in AI-powered onboarding providers to help prevent eCommerce fraud, when sorting centres are implementing robotics, and when the future of deliveries is thought to be autonomous (and even flying) vehicles. In short – we are living in the future.

In many ways, this future doesn’t look exactly like we might have anticipated – that is if what we expected looks anything like our favourite sci-fi films (so far I’ve thankfully seen nothing that looks remotely like The Terminator). It often looks more like lines of code and complex algorithms. Yet despite physical automation still being in its infancy in many ways, the UK’s largest supermarket, Tesco, is currently trialling delivery robots. According to this article on Charged Retail, the trial is an effort to “save costs and boost efficiency”.

The question is, are we really ready for this? Whilst it’s undeniably cool to see the little robots manoeuvre about within a four-mile radius of a store, I still believe that most customers would prefer that human touch come the time of delivery. Why? Because whilst I totally get the genius behind retailers using AI and robots in the transaction and warehouse part of the sale, (i.e. ‘behind the scenes'), I want to have a discussion with a fellow human about my substituted items, things that aren’t available – and even just the weather! And aside from my personal preferences, there are also the people for whom this human contact is nothing short of a lifeline – I’m talking here about the many elderly people who don’t see a human all week other than the postman and delivery workers.

And how long will it be until it’s not just home deliveries that are automated? We now have Amazon Go arriving on our high streets. These checkout-less stores certainly bring ease and convenience to consumers, and undoubtedly savings to merchants – and there is a place for stores like this. But do we want our whole high street to look like this? In my opinion that would neither be good for merchants nor consumers. Experiences are vital to consumers, and convenience doesn’t always trump this when it comes to younger generations’ tastes. I can personally attest to this, existing on the cusp of both Millennial and Gen Z generations.

When it comes to retail areas that people are passionate about – music, art, high fashion – we want to engage with humans in-store (especially those with expertise around our passions) and have a social experience when we shop. In retail areas like this, it is my opinion that merchants are much more likely to sell by having a range of personalities on a shop floor than a tribe of robots.

Whilst convenience is still king, in 2019 experience might just be King Kong! And whilst there will always be an element of razzle dazzle that tech can provide for customers, a lot of people of all ages (myself included) simply don’t want to reach a stage where retail removes all human interaction. Use automation and tech behind the scenes by all means – in the warehouse, in your marketing strategies, for payments (not forgetting Laybuy!). But in many cases, passing the baton back to a human when it comes to customer interaction is, in my opinion, still the smartest thing to do.

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Alex Rohloff
Alex Rohloff