Automation Is Not Killing Retail Jobs, Just Changing Them

There was a time when people chose to use the self-scan checkouts at the grocery store because there was no line. Now the automated lines can be just as long as the old school version. Whether it’s because we’ve become accustomed to scanning our own groceries, or it’s because we just don’t want to interact with other human beings, consumers are clearly embracing the new automated retail world.

In fact, automated checkouts have dramatically increased over the years. An L.A. Times article from 2003 reported, “In the last two years, about a third of all grocery retailers have installed or tested self-scan checkouts.” Flash forward fifteen years later to 2018, and data from shows that 95% of consumers have encountered at least one self-scanning checkout, and 49% use them at least once a week at the grocery store.

Today, consumers are pre-paying for lattes from their phones, ordering Big Macs from four-foot tall touch screens and Amazon is actually testing out a completely automated grocery store that utilizes an ‘all-seeing eye’ to scan items in your grocery cart and bill your credit card as you walk out the door.

But does that mean retail jobs are a thing of the past? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), retail jobs haven’t begun to evaporate quite yet. With 15.9M jobs as of August 2018, the retail industry continues to grow, in spite of the fact that self-scanning checkouts have been in use for nearly two decades. What is changing, however, are job descriptions. According to ZipRecruiter data, retail and customer service job descriptions have begun to evolve since the introduction of automated checkouts.  

Changing Skills Requirements in Retail’s New Age

We looked at a sample of half a million retail and customer service job descriptions posted to over the last two years to find out if skill requirements have changed as a result of the automation revolution. Among the top twenty skills required by employers, cashiering skills dropped steadily in importance throughout the latter half of 2017, and actually disappeared entirely by February 2018.

There was, however, one skill that has become increasingly important in these careers, and that is customer relationship management. In February of 2018 (the time when cashiering skills dropped from the list), customer relationship management skills ranked eighteenth out of the twenty skills mentioned most often in retail job descriptions. As of this August, customer relationship management skills ranked as the third most important on our list behind customer service and communication skillsboth consistently the most commonly mentioned skills in nearly every job description, even outside of service-based industries.

Increased Automation, Better Consumer Relations

We’re still not convinced automation will kill retail industry jobs. Right now it just seems to be changing them.

As more automation gets introduced into the consumer experience it will become more important for service representatives to engage with customers. Nobody wants to see the entire marketplace become a post-apocalyptic nightmare devoid of emotion altogether.

The best retailers will figure out how to optimize this new-found bandwidth among their employees who no longer have to work the cash register. And the best candidates will come equipped to their next retail job with excellent people skills.


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Jeffery Marino is a Los Angeles-based writer who previously covered emerging job market trends using proprietary ZipRecruiter data.

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