Shopping, Retailers, Employees, and Investors Stand to Benefit as AI Shapes the Future

Written by: Bill Studebaker At the local Neighborhood Market in Levittown, New York, customers are getting a first-hand look at the future of shopping. It is here that Walmart is putting artificial intelligence ( AI ) to the test, applying advanced technologies to increase operational efficiencies and improve customer service in its stores nationwide. Cameras and real-time analytics work together to send automatic alerts when an item is out-of-stock, and then prompt store associates to re-stock the shelves. Using sophisticated demand forecast algorithms, the system even tells workers the precise quantity that should be replaced to help reduce waste while ensuring customer needs are met consistently.On the other side of the country, in Bonney Lake, Washington, Walmart has begun using an AI-enabled janitorial robot—an autonomous floor scrubber called the Auto-C—to bolster its maintenance staff. The robot, which roams efficiently among shoppers during store hours, has lightened the load of human employees by several hours a night.At its distribution center in Shafter, California, Walmart now uses robots to move goods—including delicate perishables—around the warehouse floor, while automated carts at its Salem, New Hampshire store are hard at work transporting goods from an attached warehouse to the retail store, where human workers prepare customer orders for pickup.Clearly, Walmart is banking on the fact that AI and robotics is the key to maintaining its leadership position in a retail landscape where e-commerce (and, yes, Amazon) is now king. The retail giant is not alone. According to Mark Mathews, vice president of research development and industry analysis at the National Retail Federation (NRF), “Retailers are increasingly using innovative technologies to offer new ways to shop both online and in-store and provide rewarding careers for employees.” He goes on to share how these applications touch every area of the retail supply chain: “From reducing shipping costs and improving supply chain efficiency, to personalizing shopping experiences and helping workers acquire new skills, AI technologies allow retailers to compete in the 21st century economy and better serve their customers.”This major shift has some critics wondering: What about the human workers? With AI taking on much of the “dull, dangerous, and dirty work” that has always been the work of humans—and adding a high level of intelligence to the equation as well—won’t AI and robotics have a negative impact on employment? Is it possible that the technology that was designed to improve our lives will have the opposite impact simply by eliminating jobs for human workers?Related: AI is Shaping the Future of Healthcare It’s a logical assumption: more jobs for robots equal less jobs for humans. But like many things about AI and robotics, what seems straightforward based on the past is simply not accurate in our new AI-driven reality. Consider these statistics:

  • Nearly 50% of factory managers surveyed in March 2019 said that their inability to find qualified human workers had hurt growth—a rise of 14% compared to 2017. [1]
  • In April 2019, the state of Minnesota reported that job vacancies in Q4 2018 increased by 20%, with 4.9 openings for every 100 jobs. Manufacturers alone reported an 8% job vacancy rate in the same period.
  • According to the 2018 World Economic Forum “Future of Jobs” report, while nearly 50% of all companies expect their full-time workforce to shrink by 2022 as a result of automation, almost 40% expect to extend their workforce generally and more than a quarter expect automation to create new roles in their enterprise.
  • Looking back at the Walmart example, the AI systems used in Levittown can automatically detect a product on the shelf, recognize specific products and product sizes, and compare shelf quantities to demand forecasts. But it’s up to the humans to act on that information to be sure the right product is in the right place at the right time. The Auto-C janitorial robot in Bonney Lake helped bolster a previously understaffed team, giving employees more time to do work that only humans can do. Warehouse robots in Shafter and Salem are helping to cut costs and improve customer service in ways that humans can’t. This partnership of sorts between humans and machines is the very reason the trajectory of AI use in retail is sure to continue, and why human workers are poised to benefit, not suffer, as a result. And that’s not just my opinion. Many industry studies point to that reality as well:
  • IBM has stated that, “Humans will continue partnering with AI to improve customer experience and business processes in the retail industry.”
  • According to the World Economic Forum, “While machines will do more tasks than humans by 2025, robots will create 58 million new jobs in the next 5 years.”
  • Amazon’s VP of Robotics, Brad Porter, has reported that the company has added more than 300,000 full-time workers since 2012, saying that, “Automation has allowed us to offer increasing selection with faster delivery at lower cost. This is a virtuous cycle allowing our business to continue to grow and create more jobs.”
  • According to Chief economic strategist at the Progressive Policy Institute, Michael Mandel, “We estimate that e-commerce jobs in fulfillment centers and e-commerce companies rose by 400,000 from December 2007 to June 2017, substantially exceeding the 140,000 decline of brick-and-mortar retail jobs.” [2]
  • For every alarmist headline about robots taking away jobs, there is data to show that the opposite is true. Perhaps all we know for certain is that retail as we know it is changing fast, and that the new partnership between humans and machines is bringing unexpected benefits. For investors seeking to reap the benefits of this global shift far beyond the confines of their shopping carts, the time to invest in robotics and AI is now.