As Retailers Innovate, Robotics Takes Center Stage

by | 02 March 2017

Retail futurists are busy speculating about the effects that countless new technologies will have on the personalization of the shopping experience. At the 2017 Retail’s BIG Show put on by the National Retail Federation, the Innovation Lab 2.0 hot topic explored the impact of “life-changing” technologies on the retail industry.

These tech-enabled solutions — like drones, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, next-generation wearables and robotics — have the potential to transform in-store retail operations, and the speed at which these trends are emerging boggles the mind. In particular, I think the “rise of the robots” holds interesting implications for retail.

The Next Generation of Customer Service

The retail industry is already beginning to witness the effects of robotics. Last fall, Lowe’s Home Improvement introduced the LoweBot, an autonomous, multi-lingual robot guide that helps shoppers find items in San Francisco Bay Area Lowe’s stores.

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The LoweBot

Image source: Lowe’s Innovation Labs

Last summer, Target engaged Simbe Robotics to test out robots that track inventory. And this past holiday season, a fleet of robots moved into the Westfield Malls in San Francisco Center and Valley Fair. Part of an experimental partnership between Westfield Corp and SoftBank Robotics, the Bay Area was introduced to Pepper, a humanoid customer service robot, to see if it would enhance the customer shopping experience.

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Pepper

Image source: Liz Hafalia, San Francisco Chronicle

Consumers, of course, love it. And who wouldn’t? A life-size “toy” robot zooms over to greet you in its cheery, child-like voice. Its bright, big eyes complement its expressive, emotive body and hand gestures. Everything about Pepper is designed to attract and engage consumers of all ages. It’s no surprise that Pepper is starting to trend on social media for its photogenic attributes and video-worthy dance moves.

But Pepper is not all fun and games. The robot is programmed to gauge human interest by reading facial expressions and handle general customer service inquiries by accessing cloud-based response content. If presented with a complex request, Pepper alerts a nearby sales associate to manage next steps. Future upgrades to Pepper’s operating system will include speech recognition and voice response.

Dōmo Arigatō, Mr. (and Ms.) Roboto

I had my own, first-hand experience with retail robotics at Pronto Cafe during a recent trip to Japan. Upon meeting “Mr. Robot,” I was charmed, and I couldn’t help but think of Rosie the Robot from the classic cartoon The Jetsons. It’s uncanny how the fictional humanoid character seems to have been brought to life, minus the maid uniform.

I also experienced a warm reception from Aiko Chihira, a life-like android robot gracing the front desk at the Mitsukoshi Nihombashi department store. Standing at 5’5” and wearing a traditional kimono, Aiko’s features are startlingly human-like and include blinking, smiling and greeting customers in both Japanese and sign language.

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Aiko Chihira

Image source: Reuters via The Telegraph

What does this mean for the retail industry?

Robots have the potential to improve every step of the retail supply chain. Robotics are already giving retailers a competitive edge in shipping, logistics and delivery. For example, Amazon has 45,000 robots across 20 fulfillment centers. Amazon’s fleet of Kiva robots helps employees fill millions of orders each year.

Customer service robots, like Pepper and Aiko, can advise customers on product choices and help them find items. But unlike the average sales associate, they can do so in multiple languages.

Other retail robots are being used in stores to scan inventory, retrieve items for customers and deliver items to the checkout counter. Robots are also being used to capture real-time data on customer behavior, which can be relayed to the closest sales associates to help provide customers with exactly what they need.

An army of robots?

SoftBank reportedly sold out its entire inventory of Pepper within one minute of its first release. In the last two years, the company has built a U.S.-based facility to service the robots and has seen increased competition in robotics manufacturing.

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Image source: Liz Hafalia, San Francisco Chronicle

Industry observers predict that we won’t see an army of retail robots until we’ve worked out the bugs, but as retailers continue to use automation and data science to perfect the shopping experience, we are sure to see innovations from the backend to the sales floor.

Inevitably, automation, robotics and machine learning will impact the way business is conducted across every retail segment. The onus is on retailers to understand the potential of all market assets available, from e-commerce, accessibility of inventory, real estate, the added value of social networking and technological advances — including robots — to increase efficiency, reduce costs and customize and enhance the shopping experience.

But if robots beginning to stroll the aisles isn’t a sign that our industry is embracing the future, then I don’t know what is!

Anjee continues to be an insatiable collector of all things retail. She’s a student of culture living next door to future shoppers, whose fleeting trends constantly change the retail landscape … driving retailers, landlords and developers crazy!

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