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A jobs threat worse than mass store closures could fire more than 7 million retail workers

Business Insider logo Business Insider 5/21/2017 Hayley Peterson
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Video by CNBC

Nearly half of retail workers are at risk of losing their jobs to robots and other automation technology, according to a new report. 

Roughly 6 million to 7.5 million retail jobs "likely will be automated out of existence in the coming years, leaving a large portion of the retail workforce at risk of becoming 'stranded workers,'" according to the 56-page report by investment advisory firm Cornerstone Capital Group.

Retail cashiers, 73% of whom are women, will suffer the most job losses, the study found.

The losses will also disproportionately affect the working poor, since most hourly retail workers live below the poverty line. 

About 16 million people, or one in 10 American workers, are employed in the retail industry.

Walmart© Provided by Business Insider Walmart

That means the rise of automation will not only impact retail workers, but will also have broad implications for the economy as a whole, according to Jon Lukomnik, the executive director of the Investor Responsibility Research Center Institute, which commissioned the study.

Retail workers© Provided by Business Insider Retail workers

"This in-depth examination of retail automation gives investors insights as they consider investment risks and opportunities," Lukomnik said in a news release. "While the findings are important to investors, they should sound the alarm for economists and political leaders. The shrinking of retail jobs in many ways threatens to mirror the decline in manufacturing in the US. Moreover, in this case, workers at risk are already disproportionately working poor, so any disruption may cause strains in the social safety net and stresses on local tax revenues."

Retail workers are already facing an uncertain future with stores closing at rates not seen since the recession.

Retailers have announced more than 3,400 store closures so far this year, and Credit Suisse analysts expect that number to grow to more than 8,600 before the end of the year. For comparison, 6,163 stores shut down in 2008 — the worst year for closures on record.

The retail industry typically pays low wages but employs people in every age bracket, as well as those who are low-skilled and need flexible scheduling options.

When these workers lose their jobs, they can have a hard time finding other employment.

lowes robots© Provided by Business Insider lowes robots

The automation services that are disrupting retail employment can range from tablets where customers can check out without the help of a cashier to more complicated technologies like the robot that Lowe's is testing that can interact with customers in stores and help them find the items they need. 

Automation is also impacting the restaurant industry. The CEO of Taco Bell's parent company said in March that machines could replace human workers in 10 years.

"I don't think it is going to happen next year or the year after, but I do believe that probably by the mid '20s to the late '20s, you'll start to see a dramatic change in sort of how machines run the world," Greg Creed, CEO of Yum Brands, told CNBC. Yum owns a handful of fast-food companies including KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut. 

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