4 Negative Impacts of Retail Technology on Society

October 10, 2019 • Shannon Flynn


You’ve probably heard a lot about the positive ways retail technology will impact society, but people often don’t bring up the disadvantages of those changes. Let’s look at some of the negative impacts of retail technology so that you can have a balanced perspective.

1. It May Discriminate Against People Who Don’t or Can’t Use Bank Accounts or Credit Cards

Many individuals with credit cards and bank accounts take them for granted. They appreciate the convenience of being able to go into a store and use a debit card that subtracts the amount spent directly from their bank account or use a credit card that lets them pay for the purchase later. Cashless stores and automated checkouts are two related technologies that people expect to substantially change the retail experience.

They let shoppers buy things without interacting with store personnel. This approach intends to speed up the time that people have to spend in the store. That sounds good if you’re in a hurry. But, consider people who don’t have bank accounts or cards to use. The technology may discriminate against them.

Some consumers have bank accounts and cards available but would rather pay with cash. Deciding to only pay with cash most of the time often helps people control their spending, especially if they’re trying to cut down or avoid credit card debt.

Cashless retail stores frequently have signs on the door to say paper money and coins are not accepted there. That sort of signage promptly tells a person they may as well go elsewhere when buying stuff unless they have cash.

2. It Could Overwhelm or Overlook People Who Are Not Tech-Savvy

When people develop retail technology, many of them seem to assume that the eventual users are already comfortable using technology and do it in their everyday lives. A sizeable percentage of them probably do, but not everyone. Think about, for example, older people who never grew up with most of the technology that is so common today. Maybe using email a few times a week comprises the extent of their tech usage.

You’ve probably been to a store that’s staffed in a way to encourage people to use retail tech. Many supermarkets with self-checkout stations only have one or two lanes consistently staffed where people can go to get help from a cashier. If people see 10 self-checkout kiosks and only two human-staffed lanes, they’ll probably go to the self-checkouts for the sake of convenience.

But, if a person is not used to things like hearing voice prompts from a talking, touch-sensitive computer screen, they could quickly start getting upset since the technology seems so new. And, another aspect to think about is how this retail tech boom can make people feel like society is getting so advanced that it’s leaving them behind.

Some retailers have specifically tried to incorporate technology that helps seniors, though. For example, they might offer special shopping carts or put emergency call buttons throughout their stores. Also, some CVS and Walgreen’s stores have reportedly added magnifying glasses to their shelves, making it easier for people with reduced vision to read the small print on labels.

3. Retail Technology Often Requires Smartphones

Low-income families often can’t afford to purchase the latest, greatest gadgets. When their primary goals are to put food on the table or budget for the month’s home heating, new technology understandably is not a priority. Also, researchers found that budget smartphones often come with privacy tradeoffs.

For example, they frequently have old Android systems that can’t be updated, which means users are automatically at risk for security vulnerabilities.

The mobile apps released by many of today’s stores provide typically offer exclusive content. They might give people generous discounts or invite them to play interactive games that relate to the store and boosts brand recognition. At the same time, these apps usually require smartphones with certain operating systems, available memory and other standards.

Some of the least expensive smartphones on the market may not allow those apps to run. Making people have technology with minimum standards is yet another way that some members of society could feel left out due to the negative impacts of retail technology.

4. High-Tech Retail May Result in Job Losses

Artificial intelligence (AI) often features prominently in retail tech advancements. Bill Gates has called AI his Holy Grail technology but recognized that it could have some worrying consequences, such as the possibility of AI becoming too smart for humans to control. Gates also acknowledged that AI could help humans with some of their work, which would be a positive outcome.

The problem is that some types of retail AI don’t just help humans, but take over their tasks. The current AI applications in retail run the gamut from Sephora’s makeup shade finder tools to a visual search option offered by Neiman Marcus that lets people shop after taking pictures of the things they see and like. These offerings could reduce the number of people needed to staff a store.

Then, people working in retail may lose their positions and have to look for other types of work or learn new things to stay competitive. Retail technology could promote jobs in some cases, such as by causing increases in traffic at stores that release especially innovative technologies.

Also, as the companies developing and distributing retail technology find that their offerings are more in demand, that change could result in the need to hire more workers.

Indeed, retail tech may create jobs, but it’s often so smart and feature-filled that it can handle many of the jobs people do now. This means some employees — low-skilled ones, in particular — may find their jobs under threat.

Negative Sides to Many Positives

High-tech shopping can bring advantages. But we cannot forget about the negative impacts of retail technology. Fortunately, using forethought and trying to steer clear of the worst outcomes is an excellent way to manage the effects of many of the downsides.