The COVID-19 pandemic hit the economy with all sorts of blows. But one that caught everyone out like a real sucker-punch was the so-called Great Resignation – the fact that, inspired by the total evaporation of in-work security as businesses were forced to close, 47 million Americans quit their jobs in 2021 alone.
This has had a long-term detrimental impact across the economy. And certain industries, retail, hospitality and leisure among them, are feeling the after-effects more than most. According to the US Chamber of Commerce’s America Works Data Center, hospitality and leisure have seen the highest employee churn rates since July 2021, with figures regularly topping 5.2%. Retail has not been far behind and the quit rate was still around 4% last Fall.
Moreover, while leisure and hospitality have at least enjoyed new hire rates well above the national average, recruitment has remained much more difficult in retail. As a result, the sector faces a clear labor shortage, with the US Chamber commenting that in retail there are now “more unfilled job openings than unemployed workers with [relevant] experience.”
It’s a dilemma for retailers. They know that having stores understaffed risks not being able to deliver levels of service customers expect. Too few people on checkout risks queues building and wait times increasing. Not having enough sales assistants available risks frustrated customers not being able to get help when they want it. Stock will go unreplenished if there aren’t enough people to keep on top of emptying shelves, risking loss of sales.
But what can business owners do? Salaries are going up in retail to try to attract workers in larger numbers. But it’s not having a big enough effect. It seems people are finding more attractive options elsewhere, especially in sectors where the flexibility of remote work is more readily accommodated.
Kiosks and retail automation
There is often a lot of discomfort about the idea of machines replacing human labor. And rightly so. One of the major downsides of automation is the fact that it can lead to job losses.
But at a time when so many retailers are struggling to fill vacancies, that gets flipped on its head. If you can’t find enough people to do the work, automation becomes a friend rather than a threat. It takes the load off staff who are in role and helps them deliver an exceptional experience despite having fewer human resources available.
As far as in-store shopping goes, self-service kiosks are right at the forefront of automation. Businesses and consumers alike already recognize their benefits. As many as 80% of American consumers say they like using self-service options in store because it speeds up checkout times. During the COVID-19 pandemic, meanwhile, global shipments of kiosks leapt by 25% in 2020 alone as businesses deployed them as a no-contact option.
With double-digit growth in the kiosk market forecast to the end of the decade, we can already say that self-service automation is changing the face of ‘in-person’ business operations. But certainly for those sectors that are facing labor shortages, there is more at stake than lower wait times and increased customer satisfaction. Or, we might say, what is at stake is maintaining those high standards of service and experience despite having less people on the ground.
Rather than leading to more queues and lower standards of service, kiosks can even turn a deficit into an advantage. With their smaller footprint, you can generally fit more kiosks into a given space than traditional POS checkouts. So even with fewer staff, self-service can still see throughput increase – more sales, lower wait times. Every one is happy.
And when you free staff from having to work at checkout all day, you create the time and space for them to take on added value responsibilities, such as focusing on service rather than sales – which help to form stronger relationships with customers and boost average order values. And as revenues increase despite having fewer staff, wages increase on merit – making retail a more attractive career option all over again for people with skill sets that deserve to be recognised.