We’ve Seen the Future, and It’s Automatic

At the NACS Leadership Forum, industry leaders learn how to navigate the disruptive future of technology and labor and harness both for growth.

February 18, 2019

Day two of this year’s invitation-only NACS Leadership Forum began with a glimpse into the future, as futurist Brett King showed attendees what the already disrupted future will bring. From robots that are taught to learn and behave like humans to autonomous vehicles that can earn owners some extra cash by Uber-ing customers while the owner is at work, the world will change more in the next 20 years than it has in the last 250 years as technology advances exponentially.

“The word ‘convenience’ has taken on a whole new meaning because of technology,” said King to a packed room of convenience-store industry leaders. He delved into the increasing technological advances of artificial intelligence and robotics. According to King, the most common robots that we create now and will continue to create in the near future don’t look like humans. Think the iRobot vacuum, self-driving vehicles and Amazon’s Alexa. But that will eventually change.

"By 2035, there will likely be more robots than humans on the planet,” he said.

King showed attendees examples of how robots are taught to develop through learning, like humans do, and consequently, act like humans.

“In the convenience industry, you not only have to think of humans as your customers, but also autonomous vehicles,” said King, who added that there will come a day when your autonomous vehicle drops you off for lunch and then drives itself to a convenience store to fuel up, grabs some items on your list and then returns to you.

Another area of advancing technology impacting the convenience retailing industry is payments. As mobile payment options and cashless stores become more commonplace in the U.S., China is already one-step further with facial recognition as a form of payment. Smart economies of the future will be based on technologies like facial recognition and other frictionless payment methods, says Brett King. “For us to start thinking about automating convenience stores, we need to fix the payment problem,” he asserted.

Yet with all this change and advancements in technology, how does the convenience industry keep up? “Adaptability is how we survive,” said King.

After his mainstage presentation, King then led the attendees through an interactive session on developing the customer journey, where groups of attendees identified areas in the convenience industry that could generate opportunities in the future—EV battery recharging and supply chain enhancements to name just two. Groups were encouraged to think of these opportunities without boundaries (no regulations and no financial guardrails!) and envision future scenarios that could plausibly be tomorrow’s present.

Later that afternoon, Oren Cass, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and author of The Once and Future Worker, asked attendees to focus on the employee of today and stop lamenting about the skills gap between the jobs they want to fill and the workers they can find. Cass believes that’s the wrong way to think about the issue. “There is no such thing as a skills gap,” said Cass, boldly, to the audience. It’s non-sensical, he says, and rather a business-model problem, as businesses are banking on hiring a person with a certain set of skills that they will attain once they achieve a degree or more job experience.

Cass argues that the same skill sets that exist in potential hires today are not going change, and the reality is that there are no more workers than the ones we have, so c-stores should learn how to run their businesses with the existing workforce. “The people working in convenience stores of the future are going to come to you with roughly the same skills that we have today,” he said.

To obtain employees with a more diverse set of work skills, Cass stated that it’s important to bridge the gap with training and development—either by engaging the people inside your company or getting involved further upstream in the education system, such as attending career fairs or working with the local Chamber of Commerce. An untrained workforce has now become your problem and part of your business mandate.

Second, looking at the future of work and automation, Cass explains that while interesting technology is out there, its deployment will be constrained by the people using it. Cass noted that it’s vital that the convenience store industry designs their processes and technology around what workers can do now. “Building businesses with the skills workers have now is the business model that can work,” he said. Successful businesses will be ones that design their processes and technology around what workers can do.

The NACS Leadership Forum wrapped up last week.  For more in-depth coverage of the event, look for the April issue of NACS Magazine.