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Generation Next Thinking: How tech is shaping the workforce of the future

Canadian Grocer examines the trends impacting the future of work
future workforce tech
Future grocery workforces must be significantly more digital, empowered, flexible and diverse.

As the grocery industry evolves, so do the jobs needed to make it function. Whether it’s a greater demand for customer service, increased use of artificial intelligence (AI), the rise of in-store technology, hyper-personalization or a host of other factors, grocery jobs of the future are bound to change considerably, experts say.

Future grocery workforces must be significantly more digital, empowered, flexible and diverse to meet the evolving expectations of both customers and employees, says Janet Krstevski, managing director, Canada talent and organization practice lead for Accenture. Adaptability and the capacity to learn will be the top skills required of grocery employees, she says, whether they’re in-store or in the office. And grocers will have work to do to upskill these employees.

To prepare for the future, retailers such as Walmart have already accelerated their efforts to build a “regenerative workforce” that is “prepared for the exciting and ever-evolving future of retail,” says AnnMarie Mercer, chief people officer at Walmart Canada.

For example, programs such as Walmart’s Live Better U (LBU), launched last September, “are removing financial barriers and ensuring we build a future-ready workforce.” The program is providing associates access to skills needed to be ready for in-demand roles within Walmart Canada today and tomorrow, she says. 

READ: Walmart pilots robotics and automation at Calgary distribution centre as part of modernization plan

LBU includes a $50-million investment over the next five years to cover the cost of tuition, books and course fees for associates taking career-driven learning and development programs at top-tier schools across Canada. Offerings include English or French as a second language as well as in-demand courses and certificates in areas such as data analytics, omni retail, e-comm, business communications and strategy. In LBU’s first six months, more than 2,400 associates have “taken that first step in adding new omni retail skills to their tool kit,” Mercer says. 

Here’s a look at some of the trends impacting the future of work.

Leaning into AI

AI is certainly having a moment – touted, in equal turns, as the great hope or the great undoing of humanity, depending on who you listen to. From a workforce perspective, there are fears AI will lead to a reduction in grocery jobs, but Charlotte Sobolewski, consumer digital transformation leader at EY Canada, maintains AI can play a role in upskilling and training employees to deliver better customer service. 

Sobelewski says generative AI (AI capable of generating text, images or other content) can be integrated into grocers’ training programs to emulate customer interactions. Employees can interact with this AI for role-playing exercises, allowing them to handle scenarios such as dealing with difficult customers or explaining product details. The technology can also be used to personalize training for each employee, tailoring the program to address weak points, ultimately improving retention and eventually improving customer service.

READ: How to prepare your business for artificial intelligence

Walmart Canada views automation and technology “as tools that serve our associates, not the other way around,” says Mercer, noting the company is investing in enabling associates to use technology to enhance productivity, capability and customer delivery. “We’re not shying away from technology like AI; we’re leaning in and embracing it,” she says. 

Walmart, for example, recently launched My Assistant, an internal, secure, generative AI-powered tool that helps head office associates simplify daily tasks, such as summarizing meeting notes.

For all the promise of new tech, there’s also much wariness. Changes brought upon by generative AI, for instance, can bring about uncertainty and anxiety among workers, Krstevski warns. She points to Accenture research that found while 60% of workers are worried about the stress and burnout generative AI may bring, only 37% of leaders see that as a concern for their people. “That’s a big disconnect.” 

The race for tech talent

The ongoing digital transformation of businesses has increased the demand for tech talent across most industries. Krstevski says this makes talent retention as important as talent attraction. 

On the retention front, Walmart Canada is doing well in keeping salaried positions in-house, Mercer says: 84% of salaried positions in the company were filled internally last year. “We’re arming our associates with the skills, opportunity and benefits that can translate to meaningful careers at Walmart,” says Mercer. “Today’s hourly store associate could one day be our marketplace technology director.”

Bobby Gibbs, partner at consulting firm Oliver Wyman, says grocers will increase their adoption of technology solutions and will embed data scientists, data engineers and technologists in-house rather than hiring outside firms.

The impact of hyper-personalization

Accenture’s Krstevski says a trend toward hyper-personalization is set to redefine the grocery experience in the future and will result in major workforce changes.

For example, a consumer is planning a dinner for six people and is stuck for recipe ideas because one guest is vegan and another has allergies. The consumer shops online at their grocery store and inputs these parameters. Using points of reference such as loyalty card data and social listening tools, the grocery store’s online chatbot delivers hyper-personalized recipe recommendations in seconds. 

In-store, that consumer could be greeted by a robot that not only directs them to the right aisle, but also recognizes dietary restrictions, food allergies and preferences. 

READ: Canadian execs anticipate need to reskill workforce in era of AI

Behind the scenes, increased hyper-personalization will rely on employees with expertise in data analysis, language processing, cybersecurity, customer experience, marketing and many other areas, Krstevski says.

While these roles already exist today, she says, they will evolve as trends and technology evolve. For example, data analysis could soon be completely automated, meaning data scientists will have more capacity to work with the marketing team on what their data means, creating new insights for specific customers.

Krstevski also expects to see an increase in digital screens, smart carts and kiosks – and a corresponding increase in the employees needed to run them. “These will completely change the shopping experience, transforming how information is received and delivered, including customer preferences and promotions,” she says.

Additional specialist roles will continue to emerge in grocery to face trends regarding supply chains, sustainable and ethical sourcing and geopolitics, Krstevski predicts.

Ready to serve

Paul Tucker, HR transformation and technology leader at EY Canada, expects e-commerce will eventually become a more viable revenue stream for grocers. Despite interest and growth in online grocery shopping, he does not see an immediate drop of jobs in-store, as physical locations remain the preferred place to procure groceries (according to Canadian Grocer’s 2024 GroceryIQ Study, 98% of Canadians shop a grocery store at least once a month). But, he expects more daily necessities will be ordered online and specialty products picked up in stores. If this shift toward the purchase of more specialty goods in store is realized, he says grocers’ workshops, seminars and on-the-job training will need to focus more on amping up customer service. 

It’s important to ensure human interaction is always part of the customer experience – there must be a balance with automation and technology given the tight labour market, Sobolewski says.

For his part, Kevin Ledversis, vice-president of sales at U.S.-based Newcastle Systems, which specializes in mobile powered carts and portable power stations, believes there will be an increased need for automation at grocery because of low birth rates and an increasing shortage of workers.

READ: Futurist Doug Stephens on why the physical shopping experience matters

According to Ledversis, only about 20% of cash registers in the United States are fully utilized. As a result, he sees fewer jobs at conventional checkouts and more employees being deployed elsewhere in the store to help customers with using mobile checkouts. 

“It’s all based around line busting – getting people out faster. Instead of people coming to you, you’re going to them,” he explains. “It’s all about speed and convenience and trying to keep the loyalty of the customer.” 

Generation Next Thinking is an ongoing series that explores the cutting-edge topics that are impacting grocery retail today and in the future.

This article first appeared in Canadian Grocer’s March/April 2024 issue.

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