What Automation Means for Staffing in Retail

No one doubts that artificial intelligence and automation will change the role of staff in retail environments. The question is, how? A new theory is starting to play out in some industries and may come as a surprise: the reaction to an automated experience is a yearning for more human interaction.

In a way, though, it’s predictable. We want what we don’t have, and we have a lot less human-to-human time than ever before. The banking industry is already in the midst of this revolution. Having moved day-to-day transactions to automated platforms, banks struggled to differentiate their offering from not only each other, but also online competitors. Industry leaders saw new roles for staff as a critical wedge to clearly define their brands and a new role, the Universal Banker, emerged.

Previous staffing models positioned tellers at the frontline for day-to-day transactions, and triaged customers to specialists for higher level issues. The Universal Banker, in contrast, is capable of handling every service the bank offers from a simple deposit to a mortgage application. Banks have had to change the way they hire, train and compensate staff accordingly – but it has improved the customer experience. There is more to do in restructuring banks’ staffing model, but the Universal Banker is a good start.

How Automation Has Affected Staffing Strategies

So, what can we learn from how bank employees’ roles are changing? As many have predicted, automation canallow for menial work to be reduced, allowing staff to spend most of their time addressing higher level customer needs. And as demonstrated in the banking sector, this change can improve the customer service experience. However, some brands are eyeing automation primarily as an opportunity to cut costs.

Grocery chains and big-box stores are increasingly introducing self check-out lanes, but not all brands are redeploying staff in other roles. The key question brands will have to consider is whether to use automation to allow the redeployment of staff in more skilled roles? Or to reduce staff and increase short-term profitability?

The long-term impact of removing staff from the customer experience will be negative for retailers with a bricks-and-mortar presence. The reason is simple: competitors who offer excellent service by redeploying staff in expert roles will have an enormous advantage. Unless retailers pass on a significant cost savings or other equally relevant benefits to their customers, the initial profits made by removing staff will be eaten up as other brands with better experiences claim greater market share. Regardless, we predict many brands will take the route of automating in order to cut costs. We foresee those who reorganize their staffing model to increase meaningful human interaction will come out on top. This may still mean a reduction in the total number of employees, but those jobs will provide greater value.

The Shift to Staffing Experts

So how does your brand begin to shift from a cashier/sales representative model to one that positions your employees as experts?

Depending on the category, there are some key ways you can denote a change both to your employees and your consumers:

  1. Create a zone or key location for your expert with clearly denoted signage. This could look like a more modern version of an office, a kiosk, a private lounge or a counter depending on the category.
  2. Create job titles that reflect what staff actually do and your brand personality. For a serious brand such as a bank, traditional names might be preferred, while a youthful telecom could use playful monikers.
  3. Change up staff uniforms or dress codes to indicate new roles. Ideally staff would be engaged in this process to ensure greater buy-in when the change occurs.
  4. Think about what added-value services you could offer as part of a more expert-driven experience. For example, a fashion brand could offer fashion experts who curate wardrobe selections, tailor clothes for a perfect fit and help customers create outfits based on not only their wardrobe. Grocery stores could employ dieticians able to decode nutritional labels, help address health concerns and even teach cooking classes.
  5. Run an employee engagement program throughout the entire process as you shift your staffing model. When employees feel their input is valued, buy-in will be greater once you reach implementation. It can be a painful process, with some staff moving “up” in position, while others may be let go. The more you can create a process that builds internal engagement and energy, the better the end result.

As automation and AI begin to take off in business applications, brands will need to carefully ensure a new staffing model does not remove human connection. The best use of new technology will allow staff to have more meaningful engagement with consumers.