The fact is, even when companies manage to develop sophisticated technologies to automate sales, customers don’t seem to like them. Last year, for instance, CVS removed self-pay kiosks from some of its stores because the machines either didn’t work properly or because customers said they felt alienated by them. Grocery stores have reported similar findings, with self-checkout lanes eliminating human contact that their customers actually might have wanted. Costco, which experimented with self-service checkout for a time, abandoned that effort because managers found that people simply did a better job than the machines. And on top of all this, theft is up to five times higher in self-checkout lanes.
As George M. Lee, an analyst at the investment-research firm Value Line, has written, there are all sorts of logistical concerns that come with automated checkouts. For one thing, customers have a hard time navigating the interfaces and scanning items efficiently—which is only compounded by the fact that shoppers often feel pressured to check out quickly if there’s a line behind them. Frequently, attendants have to help customers complete transactions, which “ultimately evaporates any time savings and results in an even more frustrating shopping experience,” Lee writes. So, while replacing cashiers with machines certainly seems to lower costs on paper, the logistical costs—notably theft and customer frustration—outweigh a lot of the benefits.
Perhaps another reason that the salesperson has remained a fixture in American retail has less to do with what their pitch is and more to do with what they’re selling. Sales experts Andris Zoltners, PK Sinha, and Sally Lorimer recently wrote about this cohort in Harvard Business Review, and argued that the business of selling things—especially things that need explaining—isn’t so easy without people. As a larger share of America’s products and services have taken on a digital slant, there has emerged a market for salespeople who can hawk them. Zoltners, Sinha, and Lorimer think about this trend in the context of all the people companies employ to sell their products and services to other businesses—“B2B,” in industry parlance—but it is easy to see how this trend could affect retail, too: It is hard to imagine a machine capable of answering the barrage of questions faced by a Best Buy salesperson on any given day.
So, while futurists will likely keep predicting that machines and robots will replace salespeople and cashiers, that’s unlikely to happen. In fact, according to BLS estimates, the number of retail salespeople is projected to grow 7 percent, reaching nearly 5 million by 2024. It’s unlikely that people will be replaced in this segment anytime soon—not until robots get a lot better at acting like humans.