Can retailers automate, use smart machines and keep human touch?

Retailers will have to walk the line between real human interaction, efficiency and cutting costs via automation.

ORLANDO--Retail stores will be reinvented by smart machines, but the big balancing act will revolve around how far management should go to replace human tasks.

That's the takeaway from a Gartner presentation by analyst Kelsie Martin. At the Gartner Symposium ITxpo on Sunday, Martin urged retail execs and CIOs to ponder the "associate-less store."

We've all seen some variety of the associate-less store via self-checkout kiosks and other technology tools to replace low-margin work and allegedly improve the customer experience. Martin noted that you could make the case that mobile point-of-sale terminals, kiosks and inventory scanners could be replaced by full automation.

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As retailers go omni-channel, which is defined by the integration of online and physical commerce across multiple screens, the implementation of smart machines will be pondered.

What's unclear is whether virtual customer assistants, analytics, robots, smart apps and augmented reality can really improve the experience. Do these tools replace or augment humans?

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Martin's advice was to look to smart machines to improve loyalty, integrate people, processes and technology and transform the business. That goal doesn't mean replacing humans. Going too automation happy could actually hurt retailers. Brick and mortar stores are expected to represent 72.2 percent of retail revenue in 2017 with e-commerce representing 18.2 percent, according to Gartner. Mobile commerce will be 6.5 percent of the pie with various other channels such as mail order, call center and social contributing a bit.

While it's handy to put those retail sales in buckets, 50 percent of store sales will at least be impacted by electronic and mobile commerce even though the deal is closed at a physical location. For Omni channel--something every retailer is doubling down on---to really work integration will have to be consistent and convenient.

Add it up and the message is fairly clear: Don't skimp on the humanity. There are a bevy of studies showing that experienced human help improves sales. There are also plenty of case studies documenting that fact. For instance, Home Depot and Lowe's dueled in the early 2000s and the former went with cutting floor help and using more technology. Lowe's also used technology, but had more people on the floor. Years later, Home Depot focused more on the human help even as it rolled out kiosks and self-checkout technology.

CIOs need to look to smart machines as a way to leverage labor and free employees up to collaborate with customers instead of saving money. For now, CIOs need to evaluate smart technologies, refrain from automating when you're edge is human touch and find customer experiences where technology is a differentiator.

Here's a look at where smart machines are likely to fit in at a retailer in the future.

Source: Gartner
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