The “skilling up” of the retail workforce has the potential to enable retail workers to improve their productivity and career prospects, while enabling retail companies to build their future workforces. Purposeful investors can identify these companies and take a long-term investor view to encourage these companies to train and deploy this workforce.

The widely reported decline of physical retail stores is alarming for a variety of reasons, but retail stores are likely to live on in one form or another for the foreseeable future (as evidenced by Amazon’s recent moves into the “bricks and mortar” space). The question for retail workers is “Which retailer should I work for?”

Our recent report Retail Automation: Stranded Workers? Opportunities and risks for labor and automation provides some insight into this question for people who are looking to join or currently work in the retail sector. The report highlighted structural changes under way in retail that have the potential to impact the size and wages of the retail labor force. More than six million of the 16 million retail workers in the US, especially women and  those located in smaller regional hubs and rural areas are at risk of losing their jobs to automation just in light of technology that is currently available.

Our research revealed two key automation-related trends likely to affect labor.

First is the “hollowing out” of middle-skilled workers who perform routine tasks, like cashiers and back office associates. These workers will either retrain for higher-skilled jobs or, without training, be pushed down into basic “innate ability” jobs (such as store greeters), with minimal career growth opportunities.

Second is the potential movement of retail stores to more clearly bifurcated strategies:

Companies that adopt an experience strategy are likely to invest in their workers and use technology to enhance the effectiveness of their workforce. In contrast, we see convenience strategies as reducing the absolute number of workers to save costs. Our report offers a framework for assessing a company’s movement towards a convenience or experience strategy—or its lack of clear direction.

What’s a retail worker to do?

Based on these two trends, retail workers looking to navigate the structural changes under way should favor companies that provide tuition reimbursement and/or technical and programming training. Workers who acquire the skills to advance beyond their current roles will be better positioned to benefit, or at least avoid harm, from these secular changes.

Examples of companies that provide such programs are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Publicly disclosed tuition reimbursement and incentivized training programsSource:  Company reports, Cornerstone Capital Group

Amazon, Lowe’s, Gap, and Wal-Mart offer public disclosure around tuition reimbursement that suggests they are positioning their labor force for retail jobs of the future. Best Buy intends to increase its investment in employee development, while automotive retailers Advance Auto Parts and O’Reilly Automotive signal support of their labor force advancing within the automotive field.

Most retail companies are also actively hiring a range of programming, user experience, and merchandising workers. Retailers are competing with Silicon Valley for workers that are in high demand and have seen their wages grow significantly over the last decade, as shown in Figure 2. (Note: our original report did not explore this trend.)

Figure 2: Software developer hourly wage growth vs. total private hourly wage growth 

Source: BLS, Cornerstone Capital Group

Retailers already employ a large workforce that, with training, could provide these higher-skilled services. In addition, these workers have corporate knowledge that could allow them to be more useful to the organization than a Silicon Valley software developer.

The “skilling up” of the retail workforce has the potential to enable retail workers to improve their productivity and career prospects, while enabling retail companies to build their future workforces. We believe purposeful investors can identify these companies and take a long-term investor view to encourage these companies to train and deploy this workforce.

Sebastian Vanderzeil is a Director and Global Thematics Analyst at Cornerstone Capital Group.

 

Executive summary (download full report here)

The retail landscape is experiencing unprecedented change in the face of disruptive forces, one of the most recent and powerful being the rapid rise of automation in the sector. The World Economic Forum predicts that 30-50% of retail jobs are at risk once known automation technologies are fully incorporated. This would result in the loss of about 6 million retail jobs and represents a greater percentage reduction than the manufacturing industry experienced. Using Osborne and Frey study1 with the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the analysis suggests that more than 7.5 million jobs are at high risk of computerization. A large proportion of the human capital represented by the retail workforce is therefore at risk of becoming “stranded workers.”

As of 2002, retail employment exceeded total manufacturing employment, and now sits at about 16 million workers (Figure 1). Total manufacturing employment, which peaked in 1979 at approximately 19 million workers, has fallen to 12 million workers. The repercussions of manufacturing’s decline, which was driven by automation and globalization, have been felt at the local and national levels. For example, certain areas of the US that were once manufacturing hubs have experienced rising poverty, declining populations, and erosion of political trust.

Figure 1: Employment in manufacturing and retail trade 

Source: US FRED, Cornerstone Capital Group

The impact of significant reductions in retail workers may mirror the impact of manufacturing job losses. Retail sales at brick-and-mortar stores, as well as margins on those sales, are increasingly constrained as consumers shift to online shopping. At the same time, many parts of the country are experiencing upward structural wage pressure as concerns about income inequality are gaining political traction. Major retailers, including Macy’s, J.C. Penney, Kohl’s and Wal-Mart, have collectively closed hundreds of stores over the last few years in attempts to stem losses from unprofitable stores. These headwinds are pushing retailers to rethink the traditional retail business model.

Technology has the potential to automate part of the sales process and render a range of jobs redundant

Retailers are investing in technology to build out their omnichannel platforms. In some cases, technology is complementing labor by providing a better customer experience. Indeed, this report argues that companies which use technology to support their workers are likely to benefit from long-term productivity gains. However, technology also has the potential to automate part of the sales process and render a range of jobs redundant. Taken together, store closures and automation technology have the potential to accelerate job losses in retail, an industry that employs approximately 10% of the total US labor force[1].

An in-depth examination of retail automation was undertaken to enable investors to consider investment risks and opportunities by exploring how retail is addressing profit pressure and how employees are considered in the context of a broader shift in strategy. This report:

Key questions

Which factors are driving automation in retail?

Given that automation has been a central driving force for economic development for decades, it is important to understand why its application in the retail sector threatens to radically and rapidly reshape the retail labor force. The research identifies two key factors driving the automation conversation.

First, e-commerce has grown significantly over the last five years and now accounts for more than 8% of total US retail sales. Amazon has been a dominant force in e-commerce for years, and the company accounted for 43% of all online sales in 2016. While the consumer benefits from lower prices and greater price transparency, Amazon’s success is pressuring retailer profit margins as they fight to maintain market share and keep prices low to remain competitive.

Retail workers are disproportionately represented among recipients of public assistance

Second, a growing focus on income inequality and regulatory-driven minimum wage changes are a source of increasing wage pressure. Retail employs about 10% of the US labor force, and research finds that retail workers are disproportionately represented among recipients of public assistance.[3] Retailers have been increasing wages recently due to a tighter labor market, but retail faces a structural issue of increasing pressure for minimum wage hikes at the local and state level.

Taken together, retailers are facing structural price and cost issues that impact profitability and create meaningful long-term uncertainty. These headwinds will likely increase the industry’s propensity to automate, which would have significant impacts on existing labor. Companies are likely to respond through two consumer strategies:

While companies may pursue a mix of these two strategies, understanding which is the primary strategy will enable investors to understand how technology and labor are likely to be used, and how the overall labor profile of the company might change.

How is automation being adopted in retail?

The technology initiatives of 30 retail companies were assessed, and ten in-store technologies that will impact the retail industry were identified. The assessment provides an indication of the extent to which each technology is being deployed. These initiatives are focused on improving customer satisfaction, operational efficiency, or a combination thereof.

Research indicates companies are adopting mobile devices, self-checkout, digital kiosks, proximity beacons, and workforce and task management solutions

The review of company reports indicates that retail companies are implementing technologies such as mobile devices, self-checkout, digital kiosks, proximity beacons, and workforce and task management solutions.

What are the broader stakeholder implications?

An assessment of the gender composition of retail workers shows that the largest group, retail salespeople, has equal numbers of men and women. However, cashiers, the next largest group of retail workers, are predominantly women (73%). Cashiers are considered one of the most easily automatable jobs in the economy. Based on this analysis, large-scale automation of retail labor could disproportionately affect women, as noted previously in Cornerstone Capital Group’s September 2016 report, Women in an Automated World.

From a geographical standpoint, it appears that several major retail companies have store footprints that are concentrated in less densely populated metropolitan areas. For example, a UCLA study shows that Wal-Mart possesses an average market share of 25% in metropolitan areas with populations of fewer than 500,000 residents. This market share, if indicative of employment share (even if not directly proportionate), suggests significant potential impacts for local communities should Wal-Mart pursue an aggressive labor automation strategy.

How are companies managing labor issues associated with automation?

The retail sector provides little disclosure on labor issues. None of the 30 companies reviewed in this report provides key labor data such as employee turnover, labor costs as a percentage of SG&A, or employee satisfaction. Therefore, a series of proxy metrics were developed to evaluate the universe of companies:

No companies provide key labor data such as employee turnover, labor costs as a percentage of SG&A, or employee satisfaction

Based on the assessment, key takeaways include:

The analysis indicates that automation is set to alter the retail industry’s labor profile. If companies migrate towards a high-touch, experience-based strategy, then it is possible workers will receive improved training and higher wages, and there will be fewer layoffs. If companies adopt a heavily convenience-oriented strategy, more tasks will be automated and less labor required. To date, companies’ discussions around implementing technology suggest that technology is aimed at complementing labor. However, should structural price and cost issues persist, technology may be viewed as a potential substitute for labor.

A mix of experience and convenience strategies could still result in material lay-offs in the retail sector

The most likely outcome is a mix of experience and convenience strategies, though this could still result in material layoffs in the retail sector. Because retail represents approximately 10% of the total US labor force, any systematic deployment of automation is likely to reduce the number of retail jobs by a figure in the millions.

Download full report here.

[1] Calculated from retail trade employment, given by the Bureau of Labor Statistics Current Employment Statistics Survey

[2] Business Relationship Analytics for Value Enhancement.

[3] EPI analysis of Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement microdata, pooled years 2012-2014

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Michael Shavel is a Global Thematic Research Analyst at Cornerstone Capital Group. Prior to joining the firm, Michael was a Research Analyst on the Global Growth and Thematic team at Alliance Bernstein. He holds a B.S. in Finance from Rutgers University and is a CFA Charterholder.

Sebastian Vanderzeil is a Global Thematic Research Analyst with Cornerstone Capital Group. He holds an MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business. Previously, Sebastian was an economic consultant with global technical services group AECOM, where he advised on the development and finance of major infrastructure across Asia and Australia. Sebastian also worked with the Queensland State Government on water and climate issues prior to establishing Australia’s first government-owned carbon broker, Ecofund Queensland.

Emma Currier is a Research Associate at Cornerstone Capital Group. Emma graduated with a Bachelors of Arts degree in Economics from Brown University in May 2016. While at school, she worked with the Socially Responsible Investing Fund and as a teaching assistant for the Public Health and Economics departments. She spent her sophomore summer researching differences between American and Indian educational styles in Arunachal Pradesh, India, and completed a summer investment bank analyst position with Citi in the Media & Telecom group in 2015.

 

On February 21 Cornerstone Capital Group Research published “The Art of the Possible: Investing to Address Income Inequality,” in which authors John Wilson, Craig Metrick and Sebastian Vanderzeil provided perspective on the factors fueling increasing disparities in both income and opportunity. The report identifies investment opportunities that offer competitive financial returns while helping to address concerns about increasing levels of inequality and income stagnation.

In late April Cornerstone hosted a live streaming panel discussion on the topic, inviting Brian Trelstad, Partner at Bridges Fund Management, and Beth Bafford of Calvert Foundation’s investment management team, to discuss the topic in more detail.

Executive Summary

In this report we identify investment opportunities that offer competitive financial returns while helping to address concerns about increasing levels of inequality and income stagnation.

The rise of populist and anti-globalization political movements in the developed world is in part a reaction to middle-class wage stagnation and inequities based on age, race, gender and geography. The increasingly popular belief that the global economic system does not serve the interests of all is a source of social tension and political upheaval, creating long-term risks for investors.

Middle-income workers in developed countries face rising economic pressures:

Age, geography, gender and race further limit upward mobility for many groups of people. For instance, the likelihood of a low-income child in the southeast US achieving a high income in adulthood is notably less than for rest of the country.

Populist and nationalist movements are pledging to reverse these trends for some groups or all, sometimes gaining support by exploiting social tensions associated with these inequities. Such a response to globalization might exacerbate social tension and do more harm than good to the economic and political foundations for prosperity in the developed world.

Investors can address concerns about inequality responsibly by selecting managers who employ a number of sustainable investing strategies. Inequality cannot be addressed without supportive public policy. Yet, investors can still make a substantial impact through certain strategies such as:

Click here to download the full report. To discuss customized advice on this or other investment themes, see contact information at the end of this report.

Increasing automation will change the composition of the US workforce. 49% of workers are in professions that face a high risk (greater than 70% probability) of computerization, defined as automation by computer-controlled equipment. 32% of US workers are in professions that face a very high risk (greater than 90%).

Women face greater risk of job loss due to computerization, and “lower risk” jobs typically dominated by women pay less than low risk male-dominated jobs. Our analysis revealed that women hold nearly 60% of jobs facing very high risk of computerization. Women also hold a greater percentage of jobs in very low risk professions (less than 10% chance of automation); the median annual income of those jobs is $27,000 less than that for low risk men’s jobs.

Developing “non-computerizable” skills minimizes exposure to automation risk over the long term and enables migration towards emerging sectors. Programs aiming to develop social and critical thinking skills offer a way for women to transition to lower risk jobs and access low risk male-dominated STEM fields.

There are a range of options available to investors who wish to influence this trend. Education technology (EdTech) funds and gender lens investing offer opportunities to investors concerned with the potential impact of automation on women. We offer a brief overview of the relevant investment approaches.

Figure 1: Computerization risk categories by gender in the US

ewing-automation-figure-1

Source:  Frey and Osborne, “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?” Oxford University, September 2013; Bureau of Labor Statistics; Cornerstone Capital Group.

To download our complete report, click here.

Fiona Ewing recently completed an internship in the Research department of Cornerstone Capital Group, where she produced this original report while contributing to another major project. She is a rising senior at Dartmouth College, where she is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Economics with a minor in Chinese. Previously she interned with Clarion Partners, focusing on strategy and research.

Sebastian Vanderzeil is a Global Thematic Analyst with Cornerstone Capital Group. He holds an MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business. Previously, Sebastian was an economic consultant with global technical services group AECOM, where he advised on the development and finance of major infrastructure across Asia and Australia. Sebastian also worked with the Queensland State Government on water and climate issues prior to establishing Australia’s first government-owned carbon broker, Ecofund Queensland.