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The Washington Post has a story about how “multiple retail outlets” around the country have been testing drones to do inventory control, and the technology is expected to begin rolling out more broadly in the near future.

The Post writes that “what would take a person hours to accomplish - tediously checking shelves for missing or misplaced products - is accomplished in minutes by the tiny aircraft. Once finished, the drone uploads its findings to the cloud, setting a massive supply chain in motion and offering the store’s owners, and potentially brand manufacturers, the kind of precise data about shopping habits that has largely eluded brick-and-mortar stores … Each time the autonomous robot drops down to scan a crowded shelf using an onboard camera, the machine collects valuable data about the store’s ever-changing inventory.”

The story suggests that this drone usage is reflective of a larger reality - that the supermarket industry “finds itself in the midst of a technological upheaval, one that is providing the public with a glimpse of a future far beyond self-service kiosks and online shopping.”

And yet, the Post writes, “Those changes are not without risk. As U.S. retail companies embrace automation, many experts believe that the impact on jobs will be significant, with some analysts predicting as many as 7.5 million retail workers could lose their jobs over the next decade.”

However, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is more optimistic, and “suggests the retail-sales labor force will grow over the decade between 2016 and 2026, although more slowly than average.”
KC's View:
I’ve seen some video of this, and I’m really impressed by the degree to which this technology can make a difference - the drones work the store at night while it is closed, and employees have their marching orders when they come in the next morning. Hard to imagine that this won’t become a differential advantage, especially in an industry where it is agreed that every out-of-stock is a potential lost sale.

When it comes to the impact on labor, I’m not entirely sure what stories the folks at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics are reading … I’d like to think that the people displaced by technology will be put into other, more customer-facing roles in stores, but that’s not traditionally the way the supermarket industry has rolled.