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Many economists see automation as a major threat to jobs, but experts in the world of the Internet of Things speaking at the GeekWire Summit leaned into the concept, saying it will actually improve the retail experience for customers and free up employees to do more “fun” work.

Speaking at the GeekWire Summit’s first ever IoT track, Nadia Shouraboura, former Amazon executive and CEO of Hointer, recounted tales working as an undercover associate at stores around the globe. She worked checkout stands, did inventory and stocked items. She came away with the opinion that a lot of these jobs will eventually disappear as technology matures and customer expectations of brick-and-mortar retailers changes.

Hointer CEO Nadia Shouraboura. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

“It is not going to happen quickly, it’s not going to happen next year, but many, many of those jobs which are performed right now by associates are completely useless and a complete waste of time,” said Shouraboura, whose company both operates a robot-powered retail store in Seattle and helps other retailers blend physical and digital experiences. “And that will be streamlined by a lot, and so, many of those jobs will go away.”

The experts painted a picture of a near-future where technology makes the fitting room experience less uncomfortable, and it is easy for users to find any item, even in a giant store, because it is connected to the internet. Employees, probably less of them than we see in stores today, will be focused on customer service, serving as concierges and stylists, rather than handling repetitive tasks in the back of the house.

Impinj CEO Chris Diorio. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

One of the most important technological innovations in retail is tracking inventory by connecting items, something Seattle-based Impinj focuses on. Chris Diorio, CEO of Impinj, also worked in stores to understand the retail experience better.

Like Shouraboura, Diorio advocated for eliminating menial tasks to free up employees to provide better customer service. He compared automation to the Industrial Revolution, saying jobs continually change as technology advances.

“History is machines taking over repetitive jobs that people really shouldn’t, or don’t need to be doing, and having people do more capable, more efficient, better things going forward,” Diorio said.

Aimee Johnson, senior vice president of marketing programs and digital innovation at Starbucks. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

However, don’t expect robots to serve your coffee. Aimee Johnson, Starbucks’ senior vice president of marketing programs and digital innovation, laid out the importance of humans at the company’s more than 28,200 worldwide stores, even as it emphasizes tech solutions like mobile ordering.

She gave an example of a friend of her’s who was nervous about a big presentation, and when picking up coffee, the barista wrote on the cup “you’ll do great.” It’s these kinds of interactions that Starbucks wants to encourage, while using connected device technology and automation to remove tasks like scheduling service calls for machines.

“Those baristas would have time to make sure the creamer was filled, and they were writing on the cups and doing all kinds of things that make your day, instead of spending time setting up back of house, working inventory, figuring out whether the milk has gone bad in the refrigerator,” she said.

Scroll to the top to watch video of the entire Retail Store of the Future session from the 2018 GeekWire Summit.

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