Social Innovation Trend Canvas

How future-ready is your retail job?

While the post-COVID-19 future may seem distant and uncertain, one thing is for sure – major changes are taking place across sectors that have been most vulnerable during the pandemic. The retail sector, in particular, has faced enormous challenges during the pandemic, especially traditional brick-and-mortar stores. They have suffered major losses due to strict movement controls and more cautious spending among consumers, resulting in steep drops in footfall and revenue and the closure of many brick-and-mortar stores worldwide. Last year, several high-profile, stalwart retail brands in Singapore such as Robinsons, Topshop, Esprit, and Sportslink announced permanent closures or moved completely online due to major losses caused by the pandemic.  

In addition to COVID-19, the sector has also been facing tremendous disruption from the rapid growth of eCommerce and other technological advancements in recent years. This is radically challenging the traditional operating models of retail shops, as consumers now flock to online options due to ease of accessibility, the wide range of options available, and aggressive social media marketing.  

Some retail businesses have opted to leverage the human touch and place specialised experts in-store to improve shoppers’ experiences and keep their physical stores attractive, such as Apple’s Genius Bar, which allows customers to interact in-person with Apple hardware and software experts for technical support. Other businesses are slowly removing the need for in-store human interactions to increase efficiency, reduce operating costs, and provide safer shopping experiences in light of COVID-19 transmissions within crowded places. Whole Foods’ “dark stores”, for example, do not accept walk-in customers anymore as they have been converted into fulfilment centres. 

These new operating models mean that the livelihoods of workers in the retail sector are being threatened, as many retail innovations rely on technology such as robots, AI, machine learning, and online systems to replace the jobs of traditional retail staff in a bid to increase productivity. However, that does not mean that all retail jobs will and can be replaced so soon; many of these innovations still require specific human elements that cannot yet be replaced by technology. The retail jobs of the future will increasingly feature ‘bionic’ models where human competencies are thoughtfully augmented by technological advances. We outline a few job innovations and underscore the irreplaceable human traits and skills retailers can consider to cope with three retail megatrends.   

Deepening Relationships with Personal AI shoppers 

A personal AI shopper robot can remember customer product catalogues and use data on an individual customer’s inquiries, shopping history, size, body shape, and tastes to predict products that shoppers will likely buy. Customers can even ask their personal AI shoppers questions about the product, how they look in an outfit, which stores stock the item they want, and what discounts are available. The system will keep a record of the customer’s inquiries alongside their personal information, and can provide updates to the customer whenever there are new, similar, or complementary products available. Personal AI shoppers are expected to disrupt the jobs of salespeople and store assistants in the next three years as their predictive ability and adoption become more widespread. 

While personal AI shoppers may be able to store a complete set of information about a large number of customers on their cloud “brains” and use that information to cross-sell products or help customers making quick purchase decisions, customers may find it difficult to establish a deep connection to the robot as the interaction is not personal. Conversely, salespeople often build intimate relationships with long-time customers by offering them special discounts, showing care and concern towards their customers’ personal lives, families, and careers, and even modifying their personalities and sense of humour to suit their customers’ personalities to become more likeable and trustworthy. These are elements of sales service staff that would be challenging to replace in even the medium term, due to the complexity of these relationships and interactions. Thus, shops that feature personalised, bespoke services and high-quality customer relationships will still need to rely on human salespeople and store assistants to retain and grow such a customer base.  

Traditional salespeople and store assistants could evolve to become relationship managers and tastemakers to complement the role of the personal AI shopper. While the personal AI shopper may be the first point of contact to help customers find and recommend suitable products, human relationship managers and tastemakers are needed to leverage this information to validate or solidify decisions with the customer and cross-sell other products or ensure repeat business through their role as a friend or trusted advisor. To be successful, such relationship managers and tastemakers will need to complement their skills in relationship building and customer intimacy with product curation techniques, deepen their emotional intelligence and sensitivity, and hone their tastemaking abilities. 

Design Experiences in “Retailtainment” 

Unlike traditional shops where customers enter just to browse or make purchases, experiential retail shops create an immersive, stimulating, personalised, and unique experience for customers that cannot be replicated online. These experiential stores offer more than just products – they immerse customers in a brand, lifestyle, and culture, and are highly-curated, ensuring that customers are delighted and awed each time they step foot into the store. In the past three years, luxury brand Farfetch, for example, has rolled out its “Store of the Future”, a retail experience powered by technology, which includes an augmented reality shopping experience, software that scans facial expressions to discern emotions, connected clothing racks, and smart mirrors in the dressing room that show products and can be used make payment. The store not only provides high-tech services, it also provides “retailtainment”, featuring a changing programme of experiences involving hypnotherapists and celebrity nail and tattoo artists. These features all serve to ingrain the brand culture and experience in the mind of the customers, attracting them to return in order to feel transported or awed again by the experience. Retail players investing in such experiences will need to relook at the roles of salespeople, store assistants, cashiers, store concept and branding designers. 

To create impactful and unique retail experiences, retailers often design their stores to convey certain cultural ideals that resonate with their brand, and to do so, deploy human ambassadors to convey and communicate these ideals as they are the first point of contact customers will have in the store. Patagonia, for example, hires people who love to spend time in the mountains or in the wilderness to truly embody the spirit of its brand and community, and this identity is ingrained in customers whenever they visit a Patagonia store. Abercrombie & Fitch used to hire male models as an extension of the brand’s image as a leading fashion brand for millennial men. This sort of subconscious “culture communication” is impossible using robotic staff, as these machines are programmed to perform specific tasks and do not possess humanlike passions and ideals. Thus, the design and operation of experiential retail outlets still require real human inputs to convey values, passions, instinct, and culture, all of which are critical to the experience-making.  

Creating unique retail concepts requires drawing from multiple disciplines, from experience design, placemaking, and graphic design, to consumer psychology, visual merchandising, and even theatre and improvisational comedy. Store concept and branding designers will thus need to adopt a transdisciplinary mindset, cutting across multiple fields to come up with innovative new experiences for customers. Salespeople and store assistants will also need to develop a basic understanding of consumer psychology and behaviour to connect with customers, and may increasingly be asked to embody the values and culture of their organisation, so that each of their interactions with a customer enhances the retail experience and align it with the brand’s image. 

Infusing Trust in Social Shopping 

Social shopping, or social commerce, is a form of eCommerce that takes place on social media platform, offering consumers the ability to checkout immediately and directly within the platform they are using at the moment with fewer clicks than on a typical online store. Social media platforms attract retailers to sell to their ‘followers’ by easily allowing them to create a shoppable ‘storefront’ using one’s own social media profile, and taps into social media data on consumer preferences to help businesses target the right consumer demographics and psychographics to market their product to. It also leverages the “social” aspect of the network to expose more consumers to products through friends’ posts, recommendations, and reviews, helping businesses acquire new customers and build their brand at low upfront costs. Platforms such as Facebook Shops and Instagram Shopping have seen wide success, with retail businesses reporting double digit increases in their sales through using these platforms’ features. This widespread phenomenon is disrupting the roles of resellers playing a middleman role, marketing or engagement managers, salespeople, store assistants, and even cashiers. 

The extremely low entry barriers for online social media businesses have led to a proliferation of such retailers. The sheer number of new players can present a challenge to the trust that consumers place in who they buy from, in terms of the quality of their products, the presence of hidden costs, customer service, and aftersales, compared to retailers who have invested significantly in building holistic omnichannel strategies. Developing credibility around these businesses often requires transparent information flow, decision-rights, and direct communication between businesses, their suppliers, and customers, which cannot easily be replaced by automated chatbots. 

This business model reduces the need for middlemen, salespeople, store assistants, and cashiers. Retailers need to build new social media influencer skills such as storytelling, digital marketing, videography, analytics, and online campaign marketing. Marketing, brand, and engagement managers remain still essential to build trust between consumers and the brand.  These roles will need to feature strong skills around reliability, communication, competence, discretion, standards, transparent marketing, and product assurance, to be seen as trustworthy and of high quality among consumers, so retailers and brands can remain competitive in the face of new social commerce options. 

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Throughout history, the human experience has always featured in the process of exchanging goods and services – from discovering, desiring, and negotiating, to committing, satisfying, and consuming – in every transaction. Technological innovations are increasingly propelling the retail sector forward in different ways, yet it would be short-sighted if businesses were to rely on technology alone to deliver on efficiency and productivity. The workforce continues to play an indispensable role in taking these retail innovations to their fullest potential, as new roles in retail require a complex blend of social, emotional, creative, and analytical skills. In this highly-competitive sector of global suppliers and razor-thin margins, the most successful retailers will be the ones that are able to recognise the huge opportunity to redesign jobs and redeploy their workforce towards more valuable tasks that not just complement, but augment automation and AI to deliver exceptional products and experiences to their customers.