While many retail and warehouse management firms view automation technologies as potential solutions to labor challenges, there are significant doubts concerning their effectiveness and return on investment.
A ProGlove survey of more 1000 retail and warehouse operations professionals across the US, UK and Germany offered insights into current satisfaction levels, investment priorities and expected productivity gains automation could bring.
The survey revealed that the most popular investment area for additional productivity gains was in “human-machine collaboration,” with a quarter of respondents indicating a focus in this area.
More than half (55%) of those surveyed said they expect gains beyond 20% from investing in technology solutions.
However, there’s a significant proportion (35%) who anticipate waiting at least 5-10 years before seeing a return on their technology investment.
In addition, 15% of industry leaders cited integrating automation technology as a major hurdle, closely followed by the struggle to implement mobile commerce platforms (14%).
However, the most significant obstacle appears to be deriving actionable insights from data analytics, indicating a widespread struggle to leverage data effectively for optimizing operations.
Despite the growing emphasis on automation, satisfaction levels remain modest, with only 6% of respondents expressing high satisfaction with their current automation initiatives, while 44% report being somewhat satisfied.
Nearly two in 10 (19%) indicated dissatisfaction, signaling a need for improvement and refinement in automation strategies.
Axel Schmidt, principal communications manager at ProGlove, notes the research also shows that workforce dynamics are changing, with almost a quarter (24%) of executives reporting no change in headcount over the past five years and 34% expecting it to remain the same in the next year.
“In fact, nearly a quarter of respondents expect employee numbers to decrease in that time,” he says. “This suggests a reliance on technology to maintain productivity and elevate the productivity of the existing workforce.”
He says while challenges exist in interpreting data and melding new automation technology with current systems, the shift toward automation and robotics is vital for the retail industry to meet growing demand.
“Overcoming these hurdles is essential for retailers to sustain and enhance productivity in a competitive market,” Schmidt says.
He explains investment trends underscore a critical insight: Automation in retail is not about replacing human workers with robots or making sweeping changes on the shop floor.
“Instead, retailers are prioritizing iterative changes that enhance the capabilities of their workforce,” he says.
The emphasis on human-machine collaboration indicates a move towards leveraging technology to augment human efforts, particularly in performing labor-intensive tasks.
“This approach aims to elevate the productivity of workers by enabling them to work alongside advanced robotics and automation tools,” Schmidt says.
Moreover, the significant investment in new software solutions highlights a strategic focus on optimizing operations.
“By investing in software, retailers aim to gain better insights into their operations, identify inefficiencies, and uncover common trends,” he explains. “This, in turn, facilitates the implementation of best practices and improves productivity using the same resources.”
Schmidt says the successful implementation of an automation strategy hinges largely on the perspective and actions of an organization’s leadership.
“Leaders who recognize the value of human-machine collaboration are more likely to successfully navigate the challenges facing retailers, such as workforce shortages, while also enhancing worker capabilities through technology,” he says.
Leaders who fail to appreciate the potential of technology risk missing out on expected productivity gains and may inadvertently increase the burden on their workforce, potentially leading to higher stress levels, injuries and turnover.
“Among the most crucial stakeholders in the rollout of automation strategies are the workers themselves,” he says. “Their acceptance and adoption of new technologies are critical for the success of any automation initiative.”
For this reason, it is essential for an organization to secure buy-in from its workforce, meaning leaders must engage with their employees, listen to their concerns, and identify areas of need where automation can be most beneficial.
“Understanding the points where human-machine collaboration can make a positive impact will lead to a more satisfied and productive workforce and, ultimately, a more successful implementation of automation technologies,” Schmidt says.