Cutting Clerks Hurting Retail, But Can Mobile AI Bots Fill the Gap?

May 3, 2018         By: Steven Anderson

Back when mobile payments were first starting up, some started to wonder if maybe businesses would actually be hurt by this platform. Businesses eager to save cash would see it as a way to throw over clerks that had to be paid, and businesses would become largely self-service affairs. It turns out, though, that the ideal has not become the real, and lost clerks are starting to mean lost business for retailers. But can new artificial intelligence (AI) bots accessed via mobile save the day?

The statistics are stark; Macy’s has the same number of stores that it had in 2008, but around 52,000 fewer employees. It’s not alone; Target, Walmart, and other major retailers all cut staff as well. JCPenney lost two workers for every one location it has. The practice is resulting in increased wait times and increasingly dissatisfied customers.

That’s prompting some companies to look more closely at AI. While customers have proven hesitant about downloading apps, there may be a lot less hesitation about bots. Bots can connect to customers not through an app, but rather through a messenger program, something that might well be on the front page anyway.

Such a bot could provide an effective stand-in for human staff, answering simple questions on its own. It even has the potential to forward tougher questions to actual human staff, but those operating in a kind of call center environment rather than a retail shop floor. Chatbots—AI systems geared toward assisting customers—are expected to be used in one in four customer service operations by 2020.

The problem, of course, is what happens in the meantime. Retailers already did the firing; if the chatbots aren’t in place, there’s basically a year and a half where customers have to suffer through a field with disastrous customer service. This is not the time to be dropping the ball on customer service; it’s one of a bare few things that retailers still can point to as an advantage over online shopping.

Retailers need to balance customer service with cost savings; cutting service too soon without a replacement in play isn’t going to help. A mobile payments system with automated checkout can help, though, but it’s all about getting the right cuts in place.