On June 19, NZ Retail and The Register gathered more than 130 retailers at Freedom Furniture’s Newmarket flagship store to discuss the upcoming wave of automation technology. Speakers included Pier Smulders from Alibaba Group, Soul Machines’ Hilary O’Connor, Andy Mackie from Asset Factory, and Sean Quincey from sponsor Latitude Financial Services’ buy-now pay-later Genoapay.
NZ Retail and The Register Editor and Associate Publisher Sarah Dunn gave her views on the impending ‘robot takeover’ in her introductory speech. Here are the highlights, for a sneak peek of the smart thinking and expert opinion on the menu at these regular breakfast events:
I don’t know about you, but when I think about retail automation, I think: “Unexpected item in the bagging area.”
Then I think about my favourite retail robot, Aelia’s ACE, which is this wonderful retrofuturistic vending machine-type situation with a claw. You’ve got to love a robot with a claw.
But automation is about much more than robots, with or without claws. Automation sits at the intersection of several mega retail trends.
Trend one is customer empowerment. Much of the customer-facing automation technology on the market is aimed at satisfying customers’ desire for control over when, where and how they purchase.
The Warehouse has offered Endless Aisles in stores for some years, but in May it introduced Australasia’s first ‘Click and Collect Tower’ at Sylvia Park. Like ACE, this tower is effectively a vending machine for online orders, allowing shoppers to retrieve their parcels in seconds.
Trend two is personalisation. Those of us with Netflix will have become very used to personalisation. It can be hard to see when you’re being catered to like this, until you switch on some other person’s television and see a wall of Netflix Originals replacing your carefully curated cooking show suggestions.
Customers are now approaching retailers expecting their tastes to be catered to in the same way Netflix does. Much of retail’s automation is behind the scenes, facilitating this personalisation and increasing efficiency by invisibly taking over back-end tasks like picking and packing online orders and reconciling inventory. US grocery chain Kroger is working with Microsoft to offer shoppers personalised deals at some stores, either through their phones or on wall-mounted screens.
Trend three is that buzzword we’ve all heard so many times – experiential retail. Many of the retailers I interact with right now report that rising staffing costs are a real worry, and removing staff will undoubtedly be a focus of some automation initiatives.
However, for many retailers automation won’t necessarily be about trimming the workforce. It’ll be about redeploying staff from process-driven tasks that can be automated into customer-facing, high-touch roles where they’re actively engaging shoppers in an experience.
As we all know from our experience with automatic checkouts, that often means walking shoppers through the process of operating a self-service point, but this kind of helpful interaction is actually beneficial to the retailer. It gives staff a chance to demonstrate empathy.
Human empathy remains central to retail. Many jobs still require a human touch – multi-tasking, problem solving, communicating and emotionally connecting are all aspects of retail work just as surely as buying and stock management. If anything, automation is increasing the importance of these soft skills.
The ACE robot facilitates a faster pick-up experience and makes me smile, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say I have a rapport with it – that’s something a customer develops with their barista or an assistant in their favourite boutique.
That’s a human thing. And that’s here to stay.