Retail Robots?

Amazon’s Go grocery stores — and there are now 43 of them across the country —  have automated checkout. Patrons just walk out with their goods and sensors send their shopping list off for automatic processing and payment through But there are human beings working in the stores, offering customer service and checking IDs for people purchasing beer. Amazon is being cagey about the details, but it seems that an Amazon Go store needs hundreds of cameras and a couple of people.

Walmart, which has been plagued by store-level problems for years, has brought in a fleet of robots to scan shelves and head off problems. Out of stock items, inaccurate labels, items on the wrong shelves, and other stocking mistakes cost retailers like Walmart a lot of money and irritate shoppers. The robots’ makers claim that they can scan shelves and alert humans to errors three times as well as people can. The human beings still have to fix the errors, but they don’t have to wander around looking at the shelves any more.

Target, Lowe’s, and many other retail shops are also trying out robots and various kinds of automation. Retail robots now lead shoppers to the correct aisle for products, greet shoppers, and check them out.

Forbes took the retail automation idea to its extreme conclusion. If retail cashiers become obsolete, they figure, 2.3 million workers would be out of work.

Retail isn’t manufacturing.

Automation in manufacturing is increasing all the time. The joke is that the future factory will be staffed by one man and a dog. The man’s job will be to feed the dog. The dog’s job will be to bite the man if he messes with the machines.

The current reality is that a modern factory doing work that used to require 150 human factory hands can now be run by the appropriate machinery and a handful of engineers.

Retail involves more unpredictable work. People working in a store are expected to be able to answer questions and smile at customers, if nothing else. While consumers generally don’t trust retail workers as much as they trust their phones, they still want to be able to ask for a shoe in their size or which kind of melon they’re holding. Robots can’t do this yet.

But physical stores aren’t growing the way ecommerce is. And retail jobs are among the worst in America — 25% of retail workers earn minimum wage, most have no benefits, and many have unpredictable schedules. Giving entry-level retail jobs to robots could be a good thing

It could free up workers for manufacturing.

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