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Retail assistance: a smiling face in the age of automation.

If you’ve been to Japan, China or Korea in the last decade, you’ve likely come across a restaurant with a tablet-at-the-table ordering system. If not, you can probably already guess how it works. You arrive at the restaurant, are shown to your table by a waiter or maître d’, and then order at your leisure using the tablet sitting on your table.

A waiter will bring you your food and drinks, clear any glasses and plates you’ve finished with, and then once you’re done you settle up on the way out (or pay using the tablet on your table depending on the restaurant). It’s fantastically fast and efficient. Certainly, the system doesn’t allow for quite as much rapport to be built between the dining party and a dedicated host, but many diners would prefer to avoid too much awkward small talk with an overly-enthusiastic waiter anyway.

Similarly, walk into any McDonalds these days and you’re likely to find several large touchscreens from which you can order and pay for your gluttonous guilty pleasures. Again, fast and efficient.

As more and more job functions become automated – and businesses require fewer staff to operate – how does the overall store experience change for customers and, importantly, for staff?

From a customer’s perspective, this automation is usually positive as it means getting what you want faster. It can sometimes be frustrating if something goes awry, but as long as there’s a staff member nearby to rectify the problem (and there almost always is), no harm no foul.

For staff, however, it can be trickier. Take a supermarket for example. The team member whose job it is to help customers having trouble with the self-service checkout knows that as the system matures and customers become more adept at using it, their tenure becomes ever more tenuous.

For a checkout assistant doing things old-school, they’re patently aware that just metres away a row of robots is helping customers perform the exact same job as they are – and they too know their days scanning and bagging items are likely to be numbered. But do they even want to be performing tasks they know can be just as effectively performed by a robot?

David Graeber’s much-circulated 2013 essay on ‘bullshit jobs’ deals with 9-5 workers with ridiculous roles, like the secretary whose job exists just to make their boss look busy enough to warrant a secretary. This, he contends, can be deeply harmful to one’s sense of self-worth. “The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound” writes Graeber, because these people know their job isn’t really helping anyone.

But what about workers whose job actually does help people, but can also be performed equally well by a robot, like our checkout assistant? Surely this isn’t as damaging to their sense of self-worth, but it’s certainly not going to help, either. So how can they add more value to customers, and simultaneously enjoy their jobs more?

One way is for their roles to expand to include things that automated systems can’t yet do. For example, carrying groceries to customers’ cars, replenishing stock, general cleaning or even providing in-store samples of high-margin items, like international cheeses or cosmetics. Couple this with emerging technology like that at Amazon’s checkout-free ‘Go’ stores, and you’d have a situation where assistants are actually of assistance rather than just acting as cash-collecting gatekeepers.

Like how the waiters the restaurants mentioned above can all smile, deliver food, pour wine and clear tables better than robots can (for now), if retail staff can play to their human strengths by providing genuine value to customers – in the form of extra service or expertise – surely that’s better for everyone. It makes financial sense, too. By providing a superior shopping experience, bricks and mortar businesses can continue to fight the good fight against the ever-present threat of online stores swallowing up their market share.


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