Photography via Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty

The Rise of the Robot Sales Associate Might Be Closer Than You Think

It’s forecasted that 800 million jobs could be lost to automation by 2030, but why?

Imagine this: You walk into your favourite store. A smiling sales associate greets you by name. In a panic, you rush over to ask for his help. You’re meeting a date in 20 minutes, and you need a new shirt. You describe what you’re looking for: something sexy yet sophisticated, edgy yet classic. It needs wow factor but in a carefree cool-girl kind of way—you know? His eyes light up. “I have just the thing,” he says. He quickly returns and presents his proposal: “This blouse is made with a delicate chiffon fabric that hangs beautifully. The wrap silhouette and adjustable tie at the waist will be flattering for your figure. It will pair well with the black wide-leg trousers you bought last week.” It’s perfect. You compliment his taste and thank him for his help: “Pepper, you always know exactly what I want.” He blushes—well, maybe not. Pepper is unlike any sales associate who has ever helped you before—and that’s because Pepper is a robot.

This isn’t what Pepper is now, but it’s what Pepper could be. Pepper is no C-3PO (yet), but he was designed to make his interactions with humans as natural and intuitive as possible. Pepper has been charming and engaging shoppers since 2014, when SoftBank introduced robots to Japanese retailers. By using a network of sensors and cameras to detect and interpret your reactions, Pepper’s “emotion engine” can sense changes in your attitude and adapt accordingly. So if you tilt your head or make a semantic shift, Pepper knows something’s up and provides recommendations based on your mood, gender, age and purchase history. And he tells jokes. (Ask Pepper to explain some of his functions and he’ll respond: “I don’t want to show off; this might take over 100 hours.”)

Robots like Pepper bring the machine learning of e-commerce to brick-and-mortar retail. We know that when we shop online, we’re being watched. Companies can tell where we’re looking, what we’re looking at and what we’re buying, and this information turns into the targeted ads that appear on our Facebook timelines and browser banners. The problem is, there are people who hate online shopping—people like me. Us “mall rats” appreciate the human connection of customer service, the feel of fabric and the glowing validation and product recommendations of a well-tuned sales associate.

But what if a computer could do just that? What if there was a robot that could look at me, look at my past purchases and identify which in-store items would best fit my body, my style and my needs? When SoftBank tested Pepper at b8ta, a trendy tech retailer in Palo Alto, Calif., he proved his worth: During the one-week trial, the store saw a 70 per cent increase in traffic. When Pepper partnered with two shopping centres in California, he delivered 95 per cent customer satisfaction. With numbers like these to back robot productivity, it’s no wonder we’re seeing more and more jobs replaced by automation. And this is just the beginning: It’s forecasted that 800 million jobs could be lost to auto­mation by 2030. Surely an army of robot sales associates aren’t too far away—right?

It’s forecasted that 800 million jobs could be lost to auto­mation by 2030. Surely an army of robot sales associates aren’t too far away—right?

According to experts, they’re not. A 2013 study from the Oxford Martin School at Oxford University claimed retail salespeople have a high chance of being replaced by automation in the near future. And—sorry, Homo sapiens—it’s not hard to see why. Robots never have hangovers, they don’t take coffee breaks and they probably aren’t going to cry on the sales floor when their co-worker steals a sale. They’ll say hello to every customer, and they’ll do it with a smile. And they’ll drive sales. Robots could also be the solution to the one thing people hate most about heading into a store: sales pressure. Consumers hate nagging sales associates, and the friendly, non-imposing face of a robot could put them at ease. (Because robots aren’t people, so we don’t need to worry about what they think when we tell them the T-shirt they suggested is absolutely hideous.)

We are less likely to lie to robots—and robots are, for now, less likely to lie to us. This is a perk of trading in flesh and blood for artificial intelligence, but it could also present a problem: How is Pepper supposed to convince someone they don’t look fat in a skirt if they can’t exaggerate the truth? Pepper doesn’t dress himself—he doesn’t even wear clothes. He might be able to read my emotions, but he’ll never know what it’s like to try on a dozen outfits each morning or squeeze into a pair of two-sizes-too-small skinny jeans.

The future of retail needs to merge physical and digital, yes, but does that really mean I will be expected to take fashion advice from a naked piece of metal that can’t clothe itself? I’m willing to let robots grab my sizes, point me toward the sale section and keep me up to speed with the trends of the season, but I’ll leave my styling advice to warm-bodied pros. But if (and when) Pepper starts pulling up his own pair of pants, I’ll reconsider.

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