Will automation and the internet make retailers impersonal? Unnecessary?
It may seem like a stretch to imagine a future where the majority of humans have no need to, desire to, or opportunity to work. The movie WALL-E gives us a glimpse into what that future might look like, and quite frankly, it makes my skin crawl more than any vampire or zombie film.
Already we have countries, including the US, where only a minority of the population work to support the rest. Some of those are retired, some desiring to work, and others have no interest or have given up. Of course, some are parents who have chose to have one spouse stay home and provide full time attention to the kids.
As automation continues to grab jobs, however, (think bank tellers, book sellers, travel agents, and gas station attendants) where might it all end. There is much talk about automated fast food restaurants and even sit down eateries without waiters. Real estate agents and mortgage brokers appear to be endangered species. Retail cashiers are getting eased out. Try and find a salesperson at your local department store.
What might that look like in a bike shop? Many customers now buy bikes, components, and accessories from online resources or discount retailers. They have no access to a knowledgeable clerk to help with the decision, proper fitting, or recommendations as to needed items to make the experience care free and enjoyable. The result is this: where the US had 7,000 shops in 1990, there are only 4,000 shops today serving a much larger population.
Why do I say this future seems scary? First, there is the obvious issue of what would be our purpose for life in such a world. Would we find new purpose to replace work? Or would we just amuse ourselves for 80 years and then off to heaven. Sound crazy? Many are now retiring at 60 or even earlier and amusing themselves for 25 or 30 years.
What about as a consumer? Do we want a world that doesn't include touching the product, testing things for ourselves, trying clothing on, or discussing the purchase with a knowledgeable sales associate or owner? I don't really need help with a bank deposit or a fast food choice, but I would like to be able to ask a waiter about menu items before making a choice. And I definitely want to know whether I need a full suspension or a hard tail bike for the kind of riding I intend to be doing.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not a luddite. I love my iPhone, and my MacBook Pro has been surgically attached to my lap. And I'm not a pessimist. I suspect that man will find things of value to do even if every current job we do is handled by a robot. In fact, I'm looking forward to the first all robot war. But just don't take away my local bike dealer. That would be a sad day indeed.