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Robo-Retail vs. Humanity at a Price? Two Possible Futures for Retail

By Steve Wells, Rohit Talwar, April Koury, and Alexandra Whittington
What future can we see for humans in retail given the relentless march of the robots?

Much of the current debate on automation focuses on the possible demise of existing jobs and the spread of automation into service and white-collar sectors. Indeed, retail is certainly one industry poised to follow this automation path in pursuit of the next driver of profits. From the advent of the steam engine and mechanization of farming, through to the introduction of personal computing, jobs have always been automated using technology. However, as new technologies have come to market, human ingenuity and the ability to create new products and services have increased the scope for employment and fulfillment. Retail has enjoyed enormous benefits from technology tools, but has the time come when automation poses a threat to jobs? Here we present two possible scenarios for retail 2020-2025: one where automation eliminates most retail jobs and a second which sees the emergence of new paid roles in retail.

Scenario One: Robo-Retail Rules

By 2020, in-store robots walk the aisles to guide customers, help order from another branch, and bring goods to the checkout or your car. Artificial intelligence (AI) personal assistants like Siri and Alexa have become personal shoppers, with perfect knowledge of customers’ tastes and preferences. This allows for development of retail algorithms to recommend the perfect item before shoppers even know they want it. The algorithms offer recommendations drawing on databases of consumer preferences (i.e. Amazon recommendations), social media, friends’ recent purchases, and analysis of emerging trends—with our AI assistants providing our profiles to help filter and select the appropriate offers.

By 2022, many stores try to retain humans in key service roles for customers who want the personal touch, but most customers prefer to shop online, even if they still browse in-store. Mobile and pop-up digital stores and malls—where customers view products digitally—display selected items as touchable and sniffable holograms personalized to you. Wealthier customers can book a personal visit by an autonomous vehicle, robot, or drone which can then perform the holographic display in the comfort of your own home or garden, giving birth to the next wave of home shopping parties.

In this scenario, TV and retail are fully integrated: Many films and TV shows offer the ability to click on an item in the show, view it in more detail, see how we would look wearing it or how it might look in our home, and then make an instant purchase. In all these formats, shoppers “click to buy” virtual items, which are shipped instantly by autonomous vehicle or drone.

By 2025 the physical stores that continue to attract customers  do so with high-tech, in-store experiential services. In-store 3D/4D printing and spray-on manufacture of items to your design are commonplace. Experiences include multi-sensory immersive fashion displays; mirrors showing customers wearing an item of clothing under different lighting, in different colors, and sizes; and robot tailors customizing clothing to our requirements while we wait. The sharing economy is well advanced by now so that, at the point of purchase for many items, we already have a community who will share the ownership and cost of purchase with us.

Scenario Two: Humanity at a Price

By 2020, retailers use AI to determine who typically shops and when, and change displays so that eye-catching items are offered to relevant customers walking through at the time of day they typically visit. This would work particularly well in train stations and airports when you have a sense of which high spending passenger groups are coming through at any given time. In-store robots and drones could continuously change displays, alleviating the repetitive, physically exhausting work of retail jobs. Employees would therefore be more relaxed, thus placing more attention on the customer. Local stores might use AI apps to track the preferences of their customers, make recommendations, and deliver items at the perfect time so that shop- ping is completely seamless and tailored to specific customer needs. This is the edge by which small brick-and-mortar shops can compete with online retailers and bigger chains.

By 2022, people are willing to pay a premium to access a live purchasing advisor, someone who is an expert in a certain line of retail. This exclusivity leads to super elite retail boutiques. Part of what these shops offer would be a service where shoppers connect with fashion bloggers, Instagram idols, or YouTube artists whose fashion sense they admire. Customer service is anything but free, but well worth the cost to these shoppers. Creativity, self-expression, and individuality are major retail offerings in this future. For example, 3D print stores could help shoppers design an item, then print it while they lunch for them to collect on departure. The value-add of retail work would be the personal touch and connection in creating and selecting personalized products. In this future, services and guides become increasingly important in shopping experiences, especially in destination shopping centers and malls, keeping retail jobs in demand.

By  2025  automation’s  impact  may  support  retail  growth: Products could become so cheap thanks to extremely low-cost, highly-productive robotic labor that the value comes in the form  of an evolved “Personal Shopper.” Automation and robotics would support the actual purchase and delivery, but a Personal Shopper provides emotional support and companionship on the shopping experience: “That suits you so well…” “Why not cook prawns as a starter if chicken is your main course?” In a future where most people are involved in online schooling and remote working, this Personal Shopper service could meet cravings for personal contact.

Two Retail Futures

There is little debate that robots will take jobs,hence both scenarios assume that the future leads to the automation of current retail roles. Companies, however, must take care to avoid the temptation to plug in technology fixes where human solutions are needed, and this is especially true for retail. The value of a good, authentic conversational style or a sense of humor is something that even today puts certain retail workers at an advantage. Public-facing jobs are a test of social skills, which seem to be safely in the domain of people, not robots, for now.


  • How can we create a harmonic shopping experience that capitalizes on the distinct advantages of both humans and robots?
  • How will each of these futures respond to high-traffic sale events like Christmas shopping or Black Friday deals?
  • What kind of retail service might customers prefer ten years from now?

This article is excerpted from Beyond Genuine Stupidity – Ensuring AI Serves Humanity. You can order the book here.


Image: by geralt


A version of this article was originally published in Essential Retail.


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