Are Sales Associates An Endangered Species?

Danielle Beurteaux

This could be the next step in retail, the inevitable progression from vending machines to full brick and mortar stores without a sales associate in sight. An entrepreneur in a small town in Sweden has just opened the country’s first person-less store.

Robert Illijason needed to make a late night baby food run in his hometown of Viken, Sweden, which has a population of less than 5,000 and, it turned out, nowhere to buy baby supplies after normal retail hours.

So he came up with the idea of an “unmanned” store. It works like this: Shoppers unlock the door with their phones, scan items with their phones via an app, and are sent monthly invoices for their purchases. Pretty streamlined. Illijason stocks the stores himself and monitors it via security camera and text.

Of course, automation isn’t new. Japan is renowned for its vending machines, which sell everything from books to sake. While other countries have certainly have them as well, nowhere else quite matches Japan’s level of retail automation. So will the the store of the future be without retail associates?

Other recent experiments in automation – which recall the Automat restaurants of the early twentieth century—include San Francisco restaurant Eatsa, where diners order via touchscreens and their food appears in a glass-doored compartment, haven’t really made it beyond the novelty phase. For anyone worried about automation decimating jobs, the counterargument is that it’s often a move to inject novelty into a shopping experience, not a viable, long-term solution. There is also Shop24, which is more like a bank of vending machines than a full store, with locations mostly on college campuses.

But Illijason’s business isn’t about replacing humans because automation saves money otherwise spent on human resources, wages, and the other myriad resources it takes to keep humans functional at work. He sees this as a solution for other small towns like his, where there are now a lack of local convenience stores due, in part, to the growth of big box retailers in larger towns, where traditional mom-n-pop stores shuttered long ago, and where there are aging populations and a worker pool that’s too small, or non-existent. (In Illijason’s town, for example, a significant part of the population is elderly – a not uncommon situation for many small towns across the world.)

Will we see more stores follow this model? While more restaurants are certainly looking into increasing automation, industry experts point out that one of the reasons people go to restaurants is for the human interaction. How much hospitality remains when robots are doing the work? Similarly, one of the reasons retail environments have survived the rise of e-commerce is because consumers like shopping with other people and having a knowledgeable retail associate on hand. For one thing, if there aren’t any human retail associates, who are we going to complain to?

For more on why consumers still want that human connection, see How to Build Customer Loyalty Through Digital Emotional Affinity.

Danielle Beurteaux

About Danielle Beurteaux

Danielle Beurteaux is a New York–based writer who covers business, technology, and philanthropy. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and on Popular Mechanics, CNN, and Institutional Investor's Alpha, among other outlets.