Does retail really need the human touch?

The need for the human touch is a generational problem, younger consumers who grew up with technology actually feel it enhances their experience.
6 September 2018

Tech is beginnng to transform retail. Source: / AFP PHOTO / Mandel Ngan

The retail experience in the early 90s was quite different from the experience offered in the mid-2000s. Thanks to technology, we’re on the cusp of another radical transformation of the retail experience.

The arrival of robots and the use of big data, analytics, and artificial intelligence (AI) are two of the biggest factors that can bring about that transformation, and disrupt every aspect of retail — to the benefit of the customer and end-user.

Of those two, changes that robots cause will, of course, be more apparent since most of the ‘action’ will be right in front of the customer, as against the use of data and AI, which usually makes an impact behind the scenes.

In fact, two forms of robotics are already making waves in the retail industry. Robots which will ‘man’ warehouses and fulfillment centers and those that will support last mile deliveries — both of which are expected to slash the time and cost it takes for anything to be delivered to consumers.

AI, on the other hand, has more transformative uses in retail, many of which will transform how retailers run their business altogether.

For example, by examining years of CCTV footage from store cameras, AI can make recommendations on how stores should be laid out. Using data, algorithms can forecast what consumers will want and need most — helping store managers to arrange products optimally.

“Store forecasting, customer support, emails, delivery, checking you out, will soon all be managed by AI and robots,” said renowned innovator and Academy of Robotics Founder William Sachiti, in an exclusive interview with TechHQ.

The human touch is no longer needed

However, conversations about robots and AI in retail raise concerns among retailers and the public about losing the human touch. No matter how the retail experience changed in the past, the industry has always been human-centric, teaching staff to always be polite, courteous, and kind to customers.

Retail is where phrases like “the customer is king” and “the customer is always right” were born. It’s an industry that is intensely focused on satisfying innate human desires and fulfilling the customer’s needs — and it traditionally bet on human connections between the salesman and the shopper to get that done.

Can technology really replace the guys in the store? Will the retail store of the future really have no humans?

“Replacing in-store labor will become more common in the coming years. The need for the human touch is a generational problem, younger consumers who grew up with technology assistants and robots around them have no issues with technology within their retail experience,” explained Sachiti.

According to the 33-year old serial entrepreneur, retaining the human touch is not important because the technology is task-specific and will soon simply be better, faster and more efficient.

When will customers see all this retail tech?

According to Sachiti, who is speaking at the Tech. event in London next week, the tech is already here.

Customers are greatly benefiting from AI and robotics so far but they don’t even know it.  The smallest things like that email they received, the product they picked up just as they were leaving. That rare item of stock that was there for them when it was sold out everywhere else. All these things are beginning to have been the work of AI

“The best technology in retail will make the user experience better and the technology will not be seen,” said Sachiti.

You can forget about seeing robots walking around in the store but instead, everything is somehow magically exactly where you hoped you would find it, the process will be quick, and checking out will be as simple as emptying your cart into a bag and walking out of the store.



TechHQ is the official media partner to Tech. in London. Readers can avail of a 30 percent discount on passes using the code TECHHQ3018.