As shops go cashier-free, are retail jobs checking out?

For a long time it looked as if online shopping would gradually replace the high street. But the same digital development that was considered to be the end of physical shops may have brought a new beginning.

AmazonGoHow? Over the past two years a number of cashier-less stores have emerged in Europe and the United States, including the digital check-out test shop opened by Amazon in Seattle last year.

The innovative grocery store with no checkout line was called Amazon Go. But it wasn’t a new idea: some 15 years ago the German Metro Group, one of the world’s largest retailers, experimented with something called the Future Store, where radio frequencies and electromagnetic fields were applied to identify and track the tags attached to products. The concept was never commercialized.

Fast-forward to today, and Amazon Go uses sensor fusion, historic customer data and artificial intelligence; it connects to customer accounts via an app on their mobile phones.

Digital cashier-less stores promise certain advantages for business. For a start, the information they acquire and store can enrich existing data and help companies to analyse and plan. It also helps forecast consumer demand, predicting what buyers are going to buy before they know it themselves. The result is cost savings on shipping, inventory and delivery, and increased sales. It’s also good for consumers, in that it represent a significant shift towards seamless 24/7 retail and would open up new options for people in remote locations.

One thing that a digital store doesn’t do, however, is deliver products quickly. The solution here is in the scaling: delivery on the same day, or even within hours or minutes, becomes easier in a close network of stores and distribution centres. The denser the network, the shorter the distance to the customer, and the faster the goods arrive. This is where more stores and the use of drone delivery, reportedly just around the corner, could speed things up.

But this is only one side of the story. There’s another, darker question hanging over the whole enterprise, one perhaps reflected in the public’s mixed response in the chart below: the future of jobs in the retail sector, which after all is one of the largest employee groups.

No more shopkeepers?

In the digital store, the number of check-out staff is expected to decline dramatically. By contrast, jobs for business oversight and store security – as well as in technical positions – will persist. People will always be the best candidates for customer-service roles on the shop floor. It’s an important area of differentiation and it’s already happening. Following the centralization and automation of accounting and invoicing tasks, Walmart announced it was shifting 7,000 jobs to the sales floor. It seems clear that the responsibilities of employees are going to change.

Amazon, for example, has filed a patent for 3D printing within mobile manufacturing units. This concept of a moving factory or a moving manufacturing store would mean more flexibility, less stock and more tailored manufactured products for end consumers. In store, 3D printers can be used to produce made-to-order goods or offer 3D printing as a service. Customers pay with smartphones – no checkout line, of course. On the other side of the world, another tech revolution is taking place. In China, the commerce platform ULE is transforming stores into hundreds of thousands of hubs for e-commerce business.

In order to prepare for the future, both businesses and governments need to really understand the impact of automation on the supply and value chain. But information and opinions on this impact tend to vary. Bill Gates and Elon Musk, for instance, believe consequences will be severe. Roman Zitzelsberger, meanwhile, head of the German labour union IG Metall, considers robots less as a threat and more as an opportunity to move our professional lives towards higher-value tasks and more flexibility.

It seems that whatever happens, not only our professional lives but also our private lives – and many, if not all, businesses – will be affected significantly.

This blog was originally posted on the World Economic Forum Agenda.

 

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From flying shuttles to rolling robots, automated supply chains are almost here

Emerging technologies prepare the ground for the autonomous world, including the unmanned supply chain with many benefits but also risks to be mitigated. The main challenge and responsibility for the leaders of today is to capture the benefits while finding meaningful activity for all of us.

ASCFrom Amazon’s delivery drones to self-driving cars, autonomous factory equipment to Elon Musk’s 760 mph vacuum tubes – automated vehicles are on the rise.

Even beyond the grounds of private companies, tests of automated transport have been successful. A truck platooning system, in which groups of two or three “smart trucks” travel closely behind one another communicating wirelessly, arrived in Rotterdam in April. The Ministry of Transport in Singapore seeks proposals to develop something similar.

Also in Singapore, Airbus is pursuing an autonomous air taxi project to deliver parcels to ships in the port. On the water, the cargo ships of the future are expected to be crewless and remote-controlled.

The so-called “last mile”, delivery to the doorsteps of businesses and consumers, is probably the most complex task in the supply chain – especially in busy urban environments full of cars, bicycles and children playing in the streets. Intelligent self-driving vehicles can transport up to 100 pounds. In Paris, two entrepreneurs are building a flying river shuttle that will bypass traffic by travelling above the Seine.

Raw materials can now be extracted in automated mines; they then reach the smart factory 4.0 and are transported from there by wireless truck or delivery drone to the automated distribution centres of retailers or the smart boxes of individual consumers.

The point? The autonomous end-to-end supply chain is almost complete.

Automatic benefit

Automation in the world of logistics will create enormous opportunities when it comes to making the flow of goods safer, more efficient and more environmentally friendly. Self-driving cars alone would reduce accidents by 70%, improve fuel efficiency by 20%, and save about 1.2 billion hours of driving time over a period of 10 years. Less congestion will make the flow of goods and people faster – and those countries with driver shortages, such as the United States, United Kingdom and Germany, will find relief.

The improvements do not come without challenges, however. One key concern is cyber risk. We need to ensure that autonomous units cannot be hacked. Also ethical questions need to be answered – how to decide whom a vehicle is supposed to save in case of an accident, for example. Policy-makers also need to consider the impact on jobs: where to start, where to slow down the autonomous economy to avoid unwanted consequences, starting with unemployment.

ASCGraph

The autonomous movement, which began in the early 1950s, is now in full swing. Of 1,433 consumers surveyed in the US, 70% think they will order the first drone-delivered package within the next five years. The majority of policy-makers (88%) expect autonomous vehicles to gradually become a reality within the next 10 years, based on a recent worldwide self-driving vehicle study by the World Economic Forum.

According to the same survey, 60% of policy-makers expect a ban on private cars in cities over the next 15 years. And this might not be limited to private vehicles: over time cities will further regulate goods deliveries, which are one of the main causes of daytime congestion. Therefore, not only transportation companies, but also shippers need to prepare for an autonomous future.

Capturing the full potential of the automated supply chain requires rethinking entire logistics systems. There will be an evolution from the fixed “collect in the evening and deliver during the morning” approach to a fluid system of continuous movement and supply. Platoons, drones, tunnels, tubes, rolling robots and automated warehouses make the constant flow possible.

But this requires flexibility and innovation on the operator level, as well as investments in technology and infrastructure. It requires close collaboration between not just manufacturers, retailers and developers, but policy-makers and the citizens themselves.

Image: REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay

This blog was originally posted on the World Economic Forum Agenda.