PhotoThere's a common expression, "don't quit your day job," when your new venture doesn't seem quite ready for prime time.

But if your job is in retail, there are plenty of experts who say quitting might not be bad advice.

Dr. Keng Siau, chair and professor of business and information technology at Missouri University of Science and Technology, says people with jobs in retail need to be making alternate career plans right now.

He points to the obvious -- Amazon taking sales away from traditional brick-and-mortar retailers and putting many out of business. But he says there are things going on beneath the surface that will only accelerate that trend.

Teaching machines to interact with consumers

Retailers, he says, have embraced artificial intelligence (AI) and are using it to teach machines how to interact with customers.

“In a face-to-face environment, people may still prefer to interact with another human,” Siau said. “In a virtual environment or a non-face-to-face context, people could not care less about who or what is on the other end of the line or responding to online queries.”

He says these machines have a number of advantages over humans in the workplace, besides the obvious advantage of not having to pay them. He says sales machines can be programmed to use “Segment-of-One Marketing,” which enables the machine to track and understand individual customer behavior.

That means retailers will be able to customize products or personalize service to the individual customer, something that humans will have a hard time matching. Siau points out sales robots will be able to instantly access and process to serve every customer in a personalized way.

Replaceable

"Humans may become replaceable,” Siau concludes.

So if you are working in retail, the future might not be so bright. Siau says you don't have to switch careers immediately, because these changes won't reach critical mass overnight. But he does expect that eventually, many retail employees will eventually be replaced by AI.

In fact, you are already seeing it on a rudimentary scale in large supermarkets, where self-checkout stations have been installed. Instead of waiting in the checkout line, often manned by a union employee, consumers scan and bag their items at one of six to eight stations. These robotic checkout stations total the bill and accept payment.

If Siau is correct, these kinds of retail interactions are about to become a lot more common, as well as more sophisticated.

While many people have spent years working in retail, young people may be the biggest losers in this technological transformation. Most young people get their first work experience in short-term retail jobs, which may soon become short in supply.


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