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COVID-19 will encourage automation in retail sector

Industrial automation is an ongoing trend. Most of the things you use in your everyday life have been manufactured by robots. But what about retail? Is it possible to automate these services? Scientists from the University of Waterloo say that COVID-19 pandemic may actually encourage automation in the retail sector as well.

How about this kind of a retail worker? Image credit: Boston Dynamics via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

This is actually nothing new. Scientists note that at least in Canada every economic recession was met with automation. This is part of resource reallocation. Businesses are trying to minimize their costs by cutting down on employees. Of course, people may see this as a threat to the labour market, but it is actually a faulty outlook. Thing is, automation benefits the economy and we are all part of it. If we are able to free up our heads from some tasks, we can dedicate our thinking power to some bigger and greater things.

Scientists say that COVID-19 is going to cause a recession, which is going to be met with automation. However, this time it will be revolving around retail, not just manufacturing. Health and safety concerns are going to encourage this process. Scientists analyzed the employment trends for manufacturing assembly,office support and similar routine occupations and compared them with non-routine occupations. Researchers paid their attention to history and found that in 1987-2020 routine jobs declined. This decline was particularly common during the periods of recession.

Scientists then evaluated concerns relating the COVID-19 pandemic. They looked which sectors would benefit from automation the most and which ones are able to do it more readily. Scientists determined that major transformations are most likely in the retail sector, followed by manufacturing, wholesale, construction, and transportation.

Retail automation is already happening. You’ve probably used self-serve cashier machines in malls. They are quick and convenient. Expect more innovations like that in the near future, since COVID-19 is likely to reduce the number of people that can be in every store. But what about people who are likely to lose their jobs? Scientists point out an obvious idea, which is still quite controversial. Joel Blit, author of the study, said: “we should help retrain workers and consider transforming the current Canada Emergency Response Benefit program into a permanent guaranteed basic income”.

People oftentimes see automation as something inherently negative – we are going to lose our jobs to robots! However, standing in the way of progress just because you cannot do your job as well as a robot is not the way to go. Humans always seeked automation and were better for it. Hopefully, we can use this crisis for our advantage at least in this way.


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