’Tis the Season for Autonomous Retail

How to navigate the challenges of a reduced workforce over the holidays and into 2023.

Melanie Nuce, SVP, Innovation and Partnerships, GS1 US

December 22, 2022

4 Min Read
shopping cart in the snow
Valentin Valkov via Alamy Stock

This year’s economic forecast has put a damper on the holidays as consumers cut back on excess spending and retailers (Santa and his elves excluded) temper their need for holiday helpers. Whether they’re still understaffed from the “Great Resignation”, cutting back on hiring, or reducing their workforce amid recessionary fears, all retailers are trying to do more with less this year -- and many are looking to IT leaders for a miracle.

Innovative enterprises have their eye on cutting-edge retail technology to solve the labor gap. While only 500 stores worldwide offered autonomous checkout before the pandemic, 5,000 do so today and that number is growing. Behind the scenes, warehouse automation is on the rise and retailers like Sam’s Club are using autonomous robots to expedite cleaning and help employees assess inventory and pricing accuracy. By automating these time-consuming manual processes retailers are filling in the labor gaps and giving employees time back to focus on more meaningful, consumer-related tasks.

How To Achieve ROI From Your Automation Investments

By 2029, the retail automation market is predicted to hit $34.23 billion. Whether you’ve already begun your digital transformation or are just getting started, here are five steps to ensure your investment is a success.

1. Identify your biggest pain points

Identify where autonomous solutions can have the most impact for your business, such as inventory management, consumer checkout, store maintenance, or online order fulfillment. Omnichannel retail has rapidly merged the physical and digital (phygital) worlds of retailers and consumers, and many businesses are struggling to keep up with consumers’ demand for personalized, seamless shopping experiences, in stores and online. AI can improve product visibility, streamline manual ordering, and speed up logistics processes to meet consumer demand. For example, Kroger is using robots in its warehouses to improve fulfillment and delivery times for online grocery orders and automated electric carts in its storefronts for more efficient curbside pickup.

2. Gain universal support

Digital transformation is a group effort. It will only succeed if the entire team is working towards it; however, that is easier said than done. Modernizing business practices is a complicated task, up against the outdated notion that the risks and costs of digital transformation outweigh the benefits.

Communication is a critical part of the transition to automation. First, garner support from management by sharing how an autonomous technology investment will achieve ROI by improving workforce productivity and allowing your company to do more with limited resources. Second, show employees how AI can help automate their most basic, mundane responsibilities, reducing their workload and allowing them to focus on more strategic assignments. While human-level guidance is still required to achieve successful outcomes, automation helps improve workforce performance and can help reduce the likelihood of employee burnout.

3. Improve data quality

One of the biggest challenges for implementing emerging technology is data quality. Many organizations are still operating on outdated, paper-based recording systems, or relying on siloed digital data. For automation to be successful, retailers need a solid foundation of complete, accurate, and digitized data.

The insights we gain from AI are only as strong as the data that feeds it, and organizations risk wasting valuable time and resources if their data is not structured or harmonized, demonstrating the need for industry standards. By following set standards, retailers can ensure their data is being collected and shared in machine-readable ways so they can achieve the most accurate and meaningful results. For example, GS1 provides global standards to improve data quality and interoperability. In the context of grocery order fulfillment, GS1’s Global Location Numbers (GLNs) assigned to a store shelf, warehouse bin, or delivery vehicle can be critical for a robot to identify the correct place for each item in an online order, no matter which store or warehouse environment it’s operating within.

4. Collaborate with your value chain

While many retailers believe they can implement autonomous solutions on their own, operating within a data silo can create challenges. For technology to scale effectively, data must be ingested and shared across trading partners. By collaborating across company lines, you will have access to more data, improve product traceability, and gain greater visibility into your entire supply chain. For example, while your data may be able to tell you what’s currently in or out of stock, your partners’ data is needed to understand their inventory levels and how long it will take before you’re able to restock. Digital transformation, and optimizing investments such as autonomous retail, is not a solo journey. Fostering collaboration with your trading partners is essential to solving the problems you need to address.

5. Reassess on a regular basis

Digital transformation is not a one-time exercise. Emerging technologies, like AI, will drive major changes for the day-to-day processes your team has grown accustomed to, making buy-in, support, and ongoing feedback critical to success. It’s imperative to check in with your team on a regular basis to see what’s working, what’s not, and what steps you need to take to ensure this transition is beneficial to your operation.

When done correctly, autonomous retail has the potential to improve operational efficiency from start to finish. By investing in it now, retailers will be better prepared to weather the workforce, economic, and supply chain challenges of the future.

About the Author(s)

Melanie Nuce

SVP, Innovation and Partnerships, GS1 US

As Senior Vice President, Innovation and Partnerships, Melanie Nuce leads a team that investigates new technologies, partnerships, and business opportunities to increase the relevance and reach of GS1 Standards. Drawing on her extensive background in retail technology, Melanie oversees the exploration of collaboration opportunities to help businesses leverage emerging technologies including the Internet of Things (IoT), blockchain, artificial intelligence (AI) and computer vision to address multiple business process challenges such as autonomous retail and circular economy.

Previously, Melanie was the Vice President, Corporate Development, managing a pipeline of opportunities where GS1 Standards help drive business process efficiencies and innovation. Prior to that, she was Vice President, Apparel and General Merchandise at GS1 US, leading the GS1 US Apparel & General Merchandise Initiative, a retail industry group focused on improving inventory accuracy, exchanging standardized product data and achieving source to store supply chain visibility.

Before joining GS1 US, Melanie was the director of retail industry marketing at GXS (now OpenText) and also served as a global product manager for both supply chain visibility and data synchronization applications at GXS. Melanie also spent several years in various supply chain and consulting roles, with an emphasis on business-to-business relationships, electronic data interchange (EDI) implementation and warehouse automation projects.

Melanie is active in the ongoing development of global standards and is a frequent speaker at educational seminars and industry tradeshows. She has presented at the National Retail Federation’s BIG Show, Council for Supply Chain Management Professionals (CSCMP) Edge, and the APICS Annual Conference. She is a frequent resource on retail and supply chain technology topics for media outlets such as Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, and Forbes.

Melanie earned her bachelor’s degree in professional studies from Bethany University.

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