More than 7.5 million retail jobs are at risk of being eliminated by automation over the next several years, according to a report by Cornerstone Capital Group for the Investor Responsibility Center Institute recently quoted in an AP article by Anne D’Innocenzio. 

Some of this shift is due to changes in buying habits.  Just last week I saw experienced produce managers pushing carts through the grocery aisles filling online orders for delivery.  Which reflects another change: the decrease in younger, less-experienced workers interested in retail jobs such as picking orders.  

A reason for this change, of course, is the fact that jobs in retail are in general poorly paid. “Wages for hourly retail workers have risen less than 9 percent since 1990, compared with 18 percent for overall workers in the private sector,” according to D’Innocenzio. 

As retail jobs decrease in number, perhaps due to more online shopping, the hope is that the remaining jobs will be better paid.  The movement towards a higher minimum wage in many cities and some states is already providing an impetus towards the concept of making use of a smaller number of higher paid employees. 

The decline in sales caused by Internet shopping makes it a challenge to maintain even a reduced staff at higher wages, but those consumers who remain committed to shopping in bricks and mortar stores deserve the level of service that makes this experience enjoyable.  That means a well-trained staff made up of employees who are knowledgable about merchandise and committed to making every transaction an efficient use of the customer’s time.  

As shopkeepers, we can make sure that we are providing our sales staff with hands-on product knowledge and that we have our procedures as streamlined as possible.  Automating some tasks such as inventory control should free up employees to spend time with customers on the sales floor. (Walmart has already done this, according to the AP article, shifting workers from elsewhere in favor of more daytime sales help.)  Increasing wages and/or reducing the number of employees are tough choices to make, given the economics of running a small business, but one thing will not change in the future: great customers service comes from having committed and enthusiastic workers.  No robots need apply.

Happy Retailing, 

Carol “Orange” Schroeder

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