Are you going to lose your job to a robot?
Not so long ago, the question would have been fanciful for almost all of us, the stuff of science fiction. But our autonomous future isn’t coming… it’s here.
We tend to think the question applies mainly to manufacturing, or roles tied to transport. Some believe Elon Musk’s vision of an autonomous truck will cost 3.5 million truckers their jobs in the US alone. But it also applies to retail. Zara has just opened a 50,000 sq ft store in Westfield Stratford City, its first to feature digital technology integrating online and offline shopping. From automated collection points to mirrors equipped with RFID technology that can read the garment you’re trying on and recommend other items you migh like, a number of jobs once the domain of a sales assistant is now automated. This is fast fashion on crack.
This evolution leaves the question: what does artificial intelligence (AI) mean for luxury retail? Just as there are parallels between high street and luxury retail, so there are differences. And to my mind, these differences are about to become more pronounced. As the high street embraces automated systems, luxury will have to examine how it integrates AI into the customer experience and ask at what point automation undermines the luxury retail environment. There are several things to say here.
First is that AI should only ever be introduced into a retail context if it enhances the experience. As soon as it interferes, it alienates, and no one wants that – whatever your proposition. The second is that AI is not going to bring the swift demise of bricks and mortar. Bricks and mortar will survive, but brands will have to adapt both the in-store experience they offer so that it’s more immersive and more memorable, and also their expectations of what a store is for. We’re already seeing stores used to create a halo effect – just look at Bond Street. I’d go one further and say brands need to see the in-store experience as advertising – account for your retail network under marketing rather than sales.
Longer term, the picture changes further still. As high-street retailers roll out AI concepts, they will become the norm. Customers will soon expect instant recommendations tailored to their shape, colouring, personal style and previous purchases. But this will come at the cost of human interaction. No one, not even the tech giants of Silicon Valley, are suggesting we are about to lose our need for eye contact and the personal touch. AI doesn’t build a relationship. Yes, itcan enhance it, but it certainly doesn’t replace it.
This means that ultimately consumers will be prepared to pay a premium for a person-led luxury retail experience. Not convinced? Look at the premium people already pay for a mechanical watch. The human involvement in crafting a mechanism is now viewed as a luxury, and we pay more for it than we do for the more accurate alternatives created by technology. The same thing will happen with cars. One day we’ll pay a premium to own, maintain and insure a carwe control ourselves.
Luxury isn’t protected from AI, and we are about to go through a period of adjustment as luxury brands work out how to integrate technology into their businesses. Fast fashion will embrace AI and benefit from it. But luxury retail will remain dependent on human interaction.
Grant Morris, CEO Elite Associates