The Changing Face of Retail Employment

This weekend, my wife and I made a trip to Sam’s Club for some supplies.  The place was a mad house with every cash register line backed up at least 5 people deep.  Shoppers were at a crawling pace through the store as it was packed with people.  I suppose the weekend before Thanksgiving was bringing out everyone.  Once we saw the crowd, we immediately were tempted to just turn around and leave.

But my wife, in her brilliance, suggested I pull out my smartphone and set up the Sam’s Club Scan & Go app.  So I found a quiet spot near the jewelry counter and loaded all my info into the app.  As we travelled through the rows, we scanned each item that we put into the cart.   So it was finally time to check out and I loaded in my payment information into the app in the chip aisle.  A clerk scanned my smartphone on the way out and we were on our way.  The entire trip took 20 minutes and I could have knocked off another 5 minutes if I had already set up the app before we went.

A story on the CBS local news in the San Francisco Bay area reports that Lowe’s is introducing 22 Lo Bots, a robot that roams the aisles and will show customers where items are located.  The Lo Bot is bilingual and communicates with the store’s central computer to locate items.  It then uses a series of lasers and cameras to navigate and then takes you right up to the item.  

A really neat item that comes with Amazon Prime is the Amazon Dash Button.  This is a little 1”x3” device that can be adhered to an object and pushed when you want to order a frequently used domestic product like laundry soap or paper towels.  We have one for Izzies, a sparkling juice drink that my family enjoys.  You push the button and two days later a box shows up on the front porch with Izzies!  I can see how this one can be very dangerous to shows with small kids in the household!

All three of these are examples of how retail is changing before our eyes.  We will see this in the next week as more people shop on Cyber Monday than Black Friday.  Personally, I rather enjoy any method that allows me to complete the shopping errand quicker, giving me more time for other things.  

There is also quite a benefit of savings to the retailers.  Dr. Bill Hardgrave, dean of Auburn University’s business school, says the RFID technology--the tagging of products so they can be tracked, and the most well-known example of the new “Internet of Things” technology—is a huge benefit for retailers.  With RFID tags, retailers can expect 99% inventory accuracy, a 70% reduction in shrinkage, and a 2% to 7% increase in sales.  Self-service checkout machines, automated stacking of shelves, and changing of price tags are also on the rise.  

In each case here, technology is changing the retail landscape.  We see that every day when you go to the store.  The checkouts at the grocery store we usually frequent shrank from 12 checkout lanes down to 8 that are manned and another 9 that are self-service with a station for one employee to oversee.  So this allows the store to hire 3 less clerks and they can check out more people quicker as they now have 17 lanes.  

In each case listed above, technology is making it easier and quicker to purchase items.  It is also providing savings for the store owner.  But one factor to consider is how these changes, which no one will be able to slow down, will continue to impact employment.  Technology is allowing for changes in buying habits which will lessen the need for employees and make those who remain in retail more efficient.  I thought that the employees who wore the t-shirts touting the Sam’s Scan & Go may not be realizing they are advertising for customers to not use them and thus may be working their way out of a job.

So the question is how will the employment landscape change over the next decade?  What jobs do we have now that will become as rare as a blacksmith or a buggy whip manufacturer?  How will this impact people both on the consuming side and also the workers in this industry?  What jobs will open up in the future that are not prevalent now which people will gravitate to?

I sure don’t have any answers here, I am just pointing out the questions.

This week also marks Thanksgiving, a special holiday in our country that was originally set aside to be thankful to God in remembering our blessings.  We, at Pactola, are humbly thankful for the relationships we have with each of you.  We are thankful for the businesses we have been allowed to help fund that have helped better your communities with more jobs and economic activity.   We are also thankful that you have allowed us to help make you better.  Best wishes for a new year filled with warm and cherished memories.