Retail Jobs and Robot Replacements

Following on from my recent article outlining the different ways robots are being used in the retail sector, here I am looking at the overall impact of Robots on jobs in the retail sector.

While automation is behind some of the most spectacular advances in manufacturing ingenuity, it’s an integral factor in the unstoppable decline of manufacturing jobs. Such history has something to tell us about retail in the next ten years. A study by the British Retail Consortium, Retail 2020, suggests there could be 900,000 fewer jobs in retail by 2025 and up to 60% of retail jobs are at high risk of automation over the next 20 years. Retail could be hit harder than manufacturing was, in fact.

So why are retail jobs so vulnerable? It is largely because the industry’s labour-intensive jobs are considered easily automatable. Take cashiers for example: self-checkout machines are already ably performing their tasks without an employee behind the till. If you are a budget-conscious high street retailer, wouldn’t you opt for a clever app that facilitates purchases without the need for salespeople?

Should robots be to blame?

manufacturing diagramWe still have some ways to go before robots permeate the entire retail chain from inventory to point of sale. Most of us have yet to encounter a robot in-store, however Ocado uses robots in its warehouse operations and estimates that the tech has boosted the productivity of its staff by 50 per cent. Amazon, Tesco and JustEat have even trialled robots in the distribution process.

Traditional retail has been reducing jobs well before robots and automation appeared on the scene. Helen Dickinson OBE, Chief Executive, British Retail Consortium noted;

“The second quarter of 2017 saw employment in retail fall as the tide of change continues to sweep through the industry. Technology, which is both transforming the way we shop and providing increasing opportunities for automation in retail, combined with a difficult market environment and policies that have increased the cost of employing people, such as the National Living Wage and the Apprenticeship Levy, are driving the industry towards fewer but more productive jobs.”

Read BRC’s Retail Employment Monitor Q2 2017.
The inexorable rise of e-commerce means that we can expect more of the same, and it would be unfair to attribute any future decline in job figures solely to robots.

Opportunities from the robotic revolution

With threats come opportunity. The efficiency savings generated by robotics and automation serve to bolster company balance sheets while customers enjoy enhanced choice and convenience. In turn and in a very real way, job losses could be offset in the face of the resultant expansion and associated hiring of more staff.

Even if the net effect of robotics on jobs were not positive, however, retail staff may simply see a shift in types of activities they perform, “fewer but betters jobs” as described by the BRC. As robots oversee the tills and take inventory, retail workers can focus on enhancing the in-store customer experience – arguably a more fulfilling way to spend the workday.

Read BRC’s report entitled ‘Retail 2020 – Fewer but better jobs’.

Menzies Retail Sector member Martin Hamilton

For more information or to talk about the impact of robots on the retail sector, contact Martin Hamilton – a member of Menzies Retail sector team – by phone on 01784 497 127 or email on

Find out more about Menzies Retail Sector expertise.

Posted in Blog, Retail