The future of retail will need people, and this blog post shows why

Cotswold Outdoor is a hiking and outdoor retailer based in the UK. It also happens to be the place of work for a sales assistant, who goes by the name of Big Dave, and who went beyond the call of duty for a blind customer and his helper. You can read about it yourself – it’s on the Facebook page for the store.

Now, sure, we all love a good story with a happy ending. But this goes deeper, particularly when we consider the tribulations retail has been facing over recent years. Going beyond the call of duty might be precisely what enables some stores – certainly those who differentiate on service rather than margins – to survive. Deeper still, it goes to the heart of questions about the nature of work and whether many jobs, in particular customer service jobs, will be automated out of existence.

On this latter point, the prevailing mood is currently pessimistic – a fact which led me to jot down ten reasons why nobody would be out of a job. That post spawned some great comments, notably from Kirby who argued the opposite. I believe, however, that Kirby missed the underlying point to the ten reasons. Simply put, it’s that we help each other because we are programmed to do so as a race, and we are also programmed to expect something in return. Money simplifies this but doesn’t change it.

Since I wrote the post I have been speaking to industry expert Vinnie Mirchandi, who has been spending considerable time cataloguing jobs and looking at the impact of automation for, and who has been kind enough to send me a review draft of the resulting book. I have yet to read it all but if I could capture the conclusion in a two words it would be expect augmentation – as Vinnie says, “The end result is an optimistic read on the changing nature of work, a celebration of outstanding workers, and the machines which are making them even better.”

We are descended from a heritage of outstanding workers, an ancient truth which has taken a bit of a hit since the industrial revolution kicked off the automation game. Work gives us meaning, and makes us feel valued, and we probably couldn’t stop doing so even if we wanted to – ask any retiree who ended up volunteering, writing their memoirs or otherwise pursuing a worthy endeavour.

Will work change? Of course it will, and already, profoundly has. Re-skilling will become the norm, rather than the exception. But to suggest we face a future where work is no longer a thing, is to fail to understand what makes us human. And just as we will always have work, so will we always have outstanding workers such as Big Dave to celebrate.