The occasional help wanted sign at a local fast-food joint or clothing store is nothing new, but with the current state of the labor market, they seem to be a permanent fixture. Companies across the country are bemoaning their inability to hire and retain workers. What’s worse for those businesses is that customers are experiencing diminished service and longer wait times as an add-on impact of that labor shortage.
With any dark cloud, there is a silver lining, however; and in the case of the retail labor shortage that silver lining could be the potential for RPA’s big moment in the retail industry.
Some companies, such as McDonalds, are already ahead of the curve on the potential of more advanced RPA AI capabilities in retail. In an article for the Daily Wire, Ben Zeisloft reports that the fast food giant has already entered a partnership with IBM to automate some of its drive throughs. McDonalds began testing the concept with just 10 restaurants in Chicago in the middle of 2021. The company sees potential for growth but acknowledges some challenges ahead. “There is a big leap between going from 10 restaurants in Chicago to 14,000 restaurants across the U.S. with an infinite number of promo permutations, menu permutations, dialect permutations, weather I mean, on and on and on and on,” said McDonalds CEO Chris Kempczinski in a June 2021 earnings call.
While the customer service provided by a human employee can make a business stand out and help keep customers coming back, RPA may also have advantages over its human counterparts in the retail arena. RPA may be less likely to mess up a customer order, for example. For those who think interacting with a machine would take even more of the personal touch out of an already impersonal big-box retail transaction, consider the fact that RPA has the potential to actually remember customers and information about them, such as their previous orders, from any location in the chain’s network – a feat any fast-food employee would be hard pressed to match.
The possibilities of RPA in retail aren’t limited to the fast-food context either. Imagine an automated personal shopping assistant at a clothing store that can recall a customer’s measurements and preferences, verify whether certain items are in stock, and instantly connect to the company’s supply chain to order them if needed. This doesn’t even mention processing payment, where additional benefits could be found.
The Efficiencies of Automation
It’s also true that many of the tasks performed by employees in the retail industry aren’t even necessarily face-to-face anyway. RPA can dramatically improve the procedures around processing, labeling, and shipping online orders, for example. RPA also has a leg up in inventory management. Why ask a human to try to find out whether the company has Product ABC in stock when RPA can find that information instantaneously? RPA could have the additional advantage of integrating with supply chain management software to provide updates on if, and when, the items in question will be in stock.
Complementary, Not Conflicting Coexistence
Despite the current labor shortage, there are still millions of employees across the country working in a wide range of retail functions. These workers might read about RPA’s potential for performing retail tasks with some unease. It’s important to note that RPA isn’t necessarily a replacement for humans, but a tool through which humans can be freed to work on more substantive tasks. Why have a human employee calling around to different warehouses to answer an inventory question, when they could be negotiating better terms with suppliers or looking for increased efficiencies in the company’s distribution network?
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