For retailers worldwide, Amazon changed the game earlier this year when it unveiled Amazon Go, a new type of store that uses artificial intelligence to add speed and convenience to the in-person shopping experience. According to The New York Times, the fallout from that move is now coming into focus—the whole industry is now mired in a global race to automate stores as quickly and profitably as possible. It may prove difficult for those who lose this race to remain competitive in the 21st century.
The Times reported that many retail companies are hard at work testing out high-tech ways to improve their existing stores. For example, they’re developing robots that will keep their shelves stocked and mobile apps that make it easier for shoppers to ring up items. Walmart, perhaps most notably, is working on a “Bossa Nova” line of robots that will be sophisticated enough to detect when shelves are out of stock or items are incorrectly labeled. All this was spurred on, in large part, by Amazon Go leading the way.
“Unanimously, there was an element of embarrassment because here is an online retailer showing us how to do brick and mortar, and frankly doing it amazingly well,” said Martin Hitch, Bossa Nova Robotics’ chief business officer.
There have been notable efforts to compete with Amazon taking place both at home and abroad. In addition to Walmart’s work, Kroger has also been testing a mobile scanning service that will speed up the checkout process for grocery shoppers. Meanwhile, in China, retailers are experimenting aggressively. One is a startup called Bingo Box that allows customers to quickly enter and scan the items they want to buy on their phones. Another big brand, Hema, is rolling out automated grocery stores that speed up the process using online ordering.
While this new era in the retail industry is exciting, it’s not without its potential complications. For starters, robotizing many aspects of retail could bring major instability for the workforce: the World Economic Forum estimates that 30 to 50 percent of the world’s retail jobs could be at risk as a result. Additionally, there will definitely be privacy concerns to think about. Retailers will be able to gather mountains of data on their customers as they digitize their business, and it remains to be seen what they’ll do with it.
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