To the untrained eye, it might not seem like AI is shaping our shopping experience—we don’t have robot personal shoppers helping us find the perfect fit or selecting the ripest produce—but in reality smart technology is revolutionizing retail both in-store and behind the scenes. Everything from simplified in-store pickups to fast, wallet-free checkouts is enabled by AI.
Leaders like Walmart are perpetually adopting this futuristic technology to help employees with repetitive tasks, allowing them to focus more directly on providing a great customer experience. And while this is great for shoppers, these efforts might raise the blood pressure of current retail workers who may be nervous about the reach of technological change: A majority of Americans worry that the growing use of AI may lead to job losses. However, Walmart’s approach to AI better positions employees to contribute in a new competitive digital economy. The retailer is leading the way in developing tools that boost efficiency while also improving the work life of employees.
While there’s no denying that AI will change the nature of some retail positions—there’s simply no need for human hands to perform tedious, time-intensive tasks like changing prices or verifying product expiration dates—the gradual evolution of certain job categories doesn’t necessarily mean retail workers will become obsolete.
Anyone looking for an example of this type of shift need only open their wallet to find it. When the 1967 launch of the ATM made it possible for consumers to get cash from machines instead of people, banks created new roles for tellers which drew on their customer service expertise while helping them adapt to the new demands of the modern consumer. Experienced tellers performed traditional tasks (such as check cashing and withdrawals) when needed, but they also provided additional services to clients—such as account management and financial product service recommendations—which provided career growth opportunities while improving customer experience.
We’re seeing this same resilience today. One research group found that although industry-wide adoption of new technologies will affect some jobs, it will also create new, higher-value ones. Companies can help capitalize on these opportunities by providing workers with the skills necessary for success in the future workplace. For example, Walmart Academies (multi-week retail training programs) and the retailer’s partnership with Guild Education (which provides all Walmart associates fully-funded tuition at select colleges) both arm employees with tools to succeed and adapt along their career paths.
Educational and training programs are a great start, yet broader change is needed to ensure the benefits of a new AI-enhanced workplace reach retail employees. How, exactly, will these opportunities come about? “This will require restructuring of business models, organizations, and even the whole economy,” says Erik Brynjolfsson, Director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy and co-author of The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies.
That restructuring process should, according to leading economists, include a focus on the benefits that AI can offer retail workers. A failure to consider workers in this restructuring could be a repetition of familiar mistakes: Brynjolfsson warns, “We may see a continuation of the ‘Great Decoupling’—higher productivity but stagnating median wages as not everyone shares in the bounty. The solution is to re-skill the workforce so they can do more of the high-value jobs.”
Many are optimistic that if retailers are willing to reimagine the role of workers in the AI retail revolution and take decisive steps to affirm their importance, jobs can transform with the marketplace. “It’s absolutely possible for those workers to find a place (in the new digital economy),” says Daniel Rock, a researcher at the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy. “Matching workers to employment opportunities can be expedited and improved with good policies for employer-employee matching, retraining workers, and re-organizing workflows.”
The solution, researchers argue, lies in finding where people excel over machines and building out tasks—and ultimately jobs—that lean into those areas. For Walmart—an early developer of AI-driven shopping experiences that use human and machine resources in tandem—discovering ways to benefit both the worker and the company is top of mind. “Looking ahead, we will compete with technology but win with people,” said Walmart President and CEO Doug McMillon during the company’s 2017 Shareholders’ Meeting. “We will be people-led and tech-empowered.”
Certain roles can only be performed by humans, explains Brynjolfsson. “People who excel at interpersonal skills like persuasion, teamwork, leadership, nurturing, motivating, caring, empathy, and negotiation will have more opportunities, as will creative problem solvers and entrepreneurs,” he says. “Having digital skills can be helpful, but there are many other ways to thrive in the digital economy.”
AI can complement these roles, filling in where necessary in order to increase productivity and to free up employees’ time to perform work that’s more engaging and fulfilling. For example, managers can allocate repetitive tasks to AI-powered tools, such as Walmart’s shelf-scanning robot, that can handle a sudden increase in workload while associates help customers. AI can also gather critical data that empowers supervisors to make informed decisions about team goals based on real-time numbers, as well as their firsthand, expert knowledge.
AI serves as an extra set of hands for Walmart’s associates, making them more efficient and productive, while empowering them to expand their skills by removing monotonous tasks better performed by machines. That means a less taxing, more fulfilling work experience, which translates into greater job—and customer—satisfaction. At its core, Walmart’s use of AI is designed to enhance employee well-being, making technology a partner to associates—supporting, rather than competing with, their professional growth.
As retail competition increases, the need for skilled workers to manage the hybrid digital and mortar economy will only continue to grow. “In many cases, making one of the tasks in a job automated can increase demand for the other tasks performed in that job,” says Rock. “When that happens, the occupation changes and the overall value of the job can increase. In retail, for example, we might see customer service roles change. Machine learning might be able to recommend products more efficiently, and then customer service agents can focus on sales conversion (for example) instead of finding the right products to recommend.”
This increases the demand for retail workers capable of tasks such as managing human-guided, consumer-facing technologies (including mobile AR apps), helping customer touchpoints like online order pick-ups or digital, in-store product recommendations, and translating consumer feedback into real-time solutions.
Here lies the contemporary paradox: While some fear its implications on the workplace, AI itself is what empowers workers to transcend the challenges of the AI era. It not only drives innovation and productivity, but AI also supports the better use of human resources. AI is the epitome of a process management solution for retail—it’s intuitive, proactive, and adaptable to the challenges of shifting sales environments. For that reason, companies must continue to create pathways for technology to enhance the skills of existing employees, as well as help them transition to new, critical roles in the digitally enabled retail world.