The Unexpected Resilience of Humans in Retail

Contrary to predictions, the salesperson hasn't gone away. In fact, it’s the most common occupation in the U.S. and shows no signs of disappearing.

Ludwig Mueller displays a reduction in the price of a British-built Singer car in a New York showroom in 1949. (Tom Fitzsimmons / AP)

For over a hundred years, experts have been predicting that salespeople were on their way out. Turn-of-the-century critics predicted that the traveling salesman would soon become obsolete because the branding and advertising industries would do his job.

If this sort of prediction sounds familiar, it’s because just in the last decade many have been making the same prediction, for reasons not dissimilar to those of 100 years ago: They say technology—e-commerce, automatic kiosks, and maybe even robots—will soon replace salespeople and cashiers.

But there’s one thing that these predictions ignore, which is the fact that despite persistent fears of automation’s effects on retail hiring, the number of salespeople in the U.S. has actually been increasing. According to the latest Occupational Employment Statistics from the Labor Department, which collects data from roughly 200,000 employers, retail salespeople and cashiers were the two most common occupations in the country. Together, the two jobs are estimated to employ more than 8 million Americans—representing roughly 6 percent of total American employment.

Why have salespeople been so resilient in the American economy? Or, to put it more abstractly, what’s so powerful about having humans sell people products and services, as opposed to machines?

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.