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Humans to be working alongside robots in retail within 5 years - Gartner

Gartner predicts at least two of the top 10 global retailers will establish robot resource organisations to manage non-human workers by 2025.

Gartner research shows 77% of retailers plan to deploy artificial intelligence (AI) by 2021, with the deployment of robotics for warehouse picking as the number one use case. 

Warehouse picking involves smart robots working independently or alongside humans. 

In the future, retailers will establish units within the organisation for procuring, maintaining, training, taxing, decommissioning and proper disposal of robot resources. 

In addition, they will create the governance required to ensure that people and robots can effectively collaborate.

“The retail industry continues to transform through a period of unprecedented change, with customer experience as the new currency,” says Gartner senior research director Kelsie Marian. 

“The adoption of new digital technologies and the ever-changing expectations of customers continues to challenge traditional retailers, forcing them to investigate new human-hybrid operational models, including AI, automation and robotics."

Many retail workers want to use AI specifically as an on-demand or predictive assistant, meaning the robot will need to work alongside humans. 

“This means the robot will have to 'mesh' with the human team — essentially meaning that both sides will need to learn how to 'collaborate' to operate effectively together,” says Marian.

An example is an autonomous robotic kitchen assistant that learns an operator’s specific recipes and prepares them according to the wishes of the operator. The robot can work in harmony with the operators who, in turn, are having to adapt to changing consumer tastes.

Choosing the right candidate — human and machine — for the job is critical for success. 

A combined effort from HR, IT and the line-of-business hiring managers will be required to identify the skills needed to ensure the pair work together effectively. 

“Retail CIOs must provide ongoing maintenance and monitoring performance for effectiveness,” says Marian. 

“If not, the team may be counterproductive and lead to a bad customer experience.”

The introduction of AI and robotics will likely cause fear and anxiety among the workforce — particularly among part-time workers. 

It will be vital for retail CIOs to work with HR and business leaders to address and manage employees’ skills and concerns, and change their mindset around the development of robot resource units.

Customer experience trends will be further discussed at the Gartner Customer Experience & Technologies Summits 2020 taking place February 13-14 in Tokyo, June 8-9 in London and June 16-17 in Sydney.