Retail automation: A balance of efficiency and ethics


I recently binge-watched a BBC drama called Years and Years. Featuring Emma Thompson as a controversial British prime minister, it’s a frighteningly realistic portrayal of what society might look like given a few more twists and turns from both our political leadership and the technology developments that surround us. 

If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it as one to hunker down to next time the weather turns poor wherever you are. The reason for referencing this, however, is that there’s one speech in the show that feels particularly poignant to retail today.  

“We blame these vast sweeping tides of history like they’re out of our control, like we’re so helpless and little and small, but it’s our fault,” the family’s matriarch explains. “You know why? Because of that £1 t-shirt. We can’t resist it, every single one of us – we see a t-shirt that costs £1 and we think that’s a bargain, I’ll have that… The shopkeeper gets 5p for that t-shirt, and some little peasant in a field gets paid 0.01p and we think that’s fine. We buy into that system for life. 

“I saw it all going wrong when it began in the supermarkets, when they replaced all the women on the tills with those automated checkouts… Now all those women are gone and we let it happen. And I think we do like them, those checkouts. We want them because it means we can stroll through, pick up our shopping and we don’t have to look that women in the eye, the woman who’s paid less than us. She’s gone, we got rid of her – sacked. Well done. So yes, it’s our fault. This is the world we built. Congratulations.”

Each of us is complicit in the future world we’re creating, she suggests. And in her view, one full of automation, frankly, is a negative. 

But it’s the detail that’s important here – it’s the fact we thought any level of this automation was right in the first place, even in the most basic sense, and we forgot about the human element of it all in the process. Which is why it stuck in my head, because it’s really so real. 

Automation is something we’ve been talking about for years for the sake of efficiency. In our company, we help integrate all sorts of solutions that facilitate it constantly. And we’ve seen the industry really expanding on this front both in stores and through warehousing for some time. 

UK food delivery service, Ocado, is a market leader for warehouse automation, for instance. Its state-of-the-art facility processes 3.5 million items or around 65,000 orders every week, thanks to a fleet of 1,100 robots. 

Meanwhile, Amazon Go, the unmanned grocery store in the US, is one of the best known customer-facing initiatives in this space. It makes use of a multitude of different technologies – from sensors to image recognition – to enable shoppers to simply walk out while payment is automatically taken without having to interact with any other human being at all.

The interesting thing here, is that for every part of this in action, there are a multitude of startups we work with that do this even better. This is nothing short of a burgeoning space

To that end, John Lewis in the UK also just announced it has partnered with various robotics companies to develop its own human-robot interactions. Its intention, it says, is to have autonomous technology to assist its workers. 

Doing so comes with a multitude of benefits of course – from increased convenience for shoppers when things are faster and easier, through to better service in the process from the sales associates who are on hand to help where it matters. That also means opportunities for upskilling of staff – giving them new and higher skills, leading ultimately to better paid positions. And there’s economic incentive too. According to PWC, AI, robotics and other forms of smart automation have the potential to contribute $15 trillion to global GDP by 2030. 

This is all incredibly relevant in the context of John Lewis – one of the most trusted brands on the UK high street. The idea it suggests is that it can turn its customer promise into improved service and commercial value via robotics. 

The question really though is should it? According to the World Economic Forum, nearly 50% of companies expect automation to lead to some reduction in their full-time workforce by 2022. Meanwhile, the British Retail Consortium estimates that 60% of retail jobs will be at risk due to automation over the next 20 years. 

There’s an argument that previous industrial revolutions have ultimately led to progress – unemployment in one generation opening up new opportunities in the next. But if you want to look really far out, the University of Oxford predicts there is a 50% chance machines will be capable of taking over all human jobs in 120 years. 

That’s a fairly cynical view, but either way there’s an important note about ethics here. The John Lewis announcement came with a note that said its intention is to create an environment of safe and ethical adoption of robots in the industry. Presumably that means one that benefits its workers and not just removes their jobs. 

This isn’t a new conversation in a wider sense. AI ethics and all it consists of has been a technology debate and concern for some time. But for me, this isn’t about worrying over some apocalyptic future where the robots ultimately have intelligence enough to take over from the human race at large. It’s about the right now – the next 10 years and shaping how we want this industry to continue to work. 

I am all for efficiencies – it’s one of the linchpins of what we offer as a company, but that has to come with balance. A report by the Harvard Business Review is interesting in this sense. It suggests that those companies who are using automation mainly to displace employees, should expect to see only short-term productivity gains, whereas those who adopt it alongside staff, will achieve the most significant performance improvements.

That’s the ideal – making it great for business and for the people involved. If automation can give us greater ability to do the things we love, to remove the mundane tasks and those not adding value, it makes sense. After all, why are we doing any of this otherwise if it’s not about benefiting humanity long term. 

But we need to take a stand on this now and decide what we want for our future. There’s a certain element of inevitability to it all, but the human factor should be part of every conversation happening in this space. Ultimately what it comes down to is not do we want this change to happen, but how? It’s our choice, meaning otherwise, as per Year and Years, it will be “our fault”.  

How are you thinking about innovative solutions? The Current Global is a transformation consultancy driving growth within fashion, luxury and retail. Our mission is to solve challenges and facilitate change. We are thinkers and builders delivering innovative solutions and experiences. Get in touch to learn more.