Are robots about to take over the retail industry?

Recent studies have shown that more jobs in retail are set to be replaced by automation than any other sector. Is the tech-pocalypse really on our doorstep?

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Taxi driver: 89 per cent. Journalist 11 per cent. Bartender: 77 per cent. Retail Salesperson 92 per cent. According to website willrobotstakemyjob.com, the retail industry is “doomed”.

What’s concerning about this website is not the spurious ratings it gives your chosen job, representing the danger of it being replaced by automation, but just how many people are visiting the site.

Last month over 300,000 people chose to enter their job titles for the site’s “gaussian process classifier” to rate just how doomed they are.

It estimated around 47 per cent of US jobs were at risk of being completely automated.

This lays bare a genuine and growing concern over job security.

The retail sector, especially those who work within warehouses and delivery for large online retailers, have already begun to experience this transition.

“Human power can just not match the increase in demand”

A recent study by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) has helped to legitimise these fears. It posited that a rising minimum wage would inevitably lead to increased automation.

As an industry which relies on a high turnover of minimum wage workers – who are set to see their wages rise incrementally for the next two years – retail is predicted to be the worst hit sector in the UK.

“The fact the higher minimum will increasingly affect jobs that appear to be more automatable is an additional reason why extremely careful monitoring is required,” the study’s author Norris Keiller said.

“Even higher rates, as proposed for example by the Labour Party, would bring even more employees in more automatable jobs into the minimum wage net.”

So is retail destined to be overrun by robots? Will minimum wages become so high that unskilled jobs would be more efficiently carried out by machines?

One retailer that is leading the way in automation doesn’t think so. China’s JD.com is implementing everything from robotic arms for picking, to automated delivery drones, to AI and big data technologies on a scale unthinkable here in the UK.

Its senior director and head of JD’s Silicon Valley research centre Dr Hui Cheng told the Retail Gazette that it operates just under 7000 distribution centres, providing same and next day delivery to 1 billion people.

For an operation on this immense scale, Dr Cheng argues that human power simply cannot keep up.

“One thing is I think we have a very different view from the common belief that this is going to have a big impact on the workforces,” he said.

“First of all just to give you a number, during June and our anniversary sales, in about a week’s time we sold 700 million items. That’s like everyone in Europe buying one item which we have to deliver the same day or the next day.

“That’s only ecommerce penetration to the Chinese market of 18 per cent, so we are predicting much larger demand in the future. For those logistics pilots who have very good capabilities, human power can just not match the increase in demand.

Far from being an insidious plight on the labour market, the company pioneering advancements in automation in the sector sees it as an essential tool for growth.

Alongside its 66,000 delivery drivers, JD.com envisions an army of automated aerial and wheeled drones to fulfil the huge delivery demands that a population as big as China has.

“Through automation and our fleet of autonomous delivery drones we’re actually creating a new kind of job”

Of course, the UK has different delivery demands, and will likely use automation to solve cost issues rather than expansion limitations.

What’s more reassuring is the idea that the automated drones themselves will create jobs. Menial jobs which can easily be replaced by automation likely will, but instead of simply taking up jobs of people, they are creating an entirely new industry.

“Another aspect is that through automation and our fleet of autonomous delivery drones we’re actually creating a new kind of job,” Dr Cheng said.

“For example, we already have a drone operations specialist. We also have roles monitoring the fully automated systems.”

Those who have a 92 per cent rating on willrobotstakemyjob.com are likely to see their job change, but not disappear entirely. Although upskilling will be the retailer’s prerogative, a human element will always be necessary in maintaining, programming and administering automated machines.

Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors (CIEHF) chief executive Steve Barraclough, whose organisation carried out extensive research into the impact of automation in the UK, believes humans will never truly be replaced.

“It is inevitable that our working and living environments will involve increasing levels of automation and robotics,” Barraclough said.

“However, this will also result in the upskilling of many staff as robots are used for the more repetitive tasks.

“Most importantly though, we must remember the critical role that human factors will play in this transition.

“Human skills are essential for many tasks, making the marriage between humans and machines vital to success, so it is essential that we fully understand how to best design and operationalise both human and technological functions.”

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