Feature Story

Robots in retail

by Anne Field

Robots in retail

Stores are experimenting with ways to use robotics on the floor.

Name an industry and you'll probably find it's toying with ways to introduce robots into operations. So you might not be surprised that retailers, too, are starting to get in on the act. In fact, a number of major chains have recently started testing out ways to use robots, from giving customers directions to monitoring inventory on shelves. According to preliminary results of a recent survey of 116 retailers by RSR Research, 30% are in the process of adding robotics to their stores.

Still, there are major questions about the appropriate role robots can play in retail, at least in the store. Most important is the matter of customer service. As the online—and especially mobile—shopping experience becomes easier and more user-friendly, having knowledgeable, helpful personnel in stores may be ever-more important to attracting customers to brick and mortar establishments. As a result, stores have to strike a delicate balance when it comes to retaining a human touch, while adding a robotic one. 

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"It's a risky strategy to replace in-store labor, especially when it comes to the customer experience," says Nikki Baird, managing partner of RSR Research. "If there are no employees to help you, why have a store to begin with? You might as well just turn into a giant vending machine and be done with it."

Customer-facing and in-store operations

With that in mind, retailers tend to take two approaches to introducing robots to their stores. One involves direct interaction between customers and robots. Perhaps the best known example is Softbank's Pepper, a humanoid-looking gizmo which can be programmed to answer questions, give directions and even take selfies with passersby. Already in use in Japan, the company recently started testing it out in the U.S. For example, in a recent pilot at a Palo Alto, Calif., technology store, the retailer reportedly experienced a 70% increase in foot traffic.

The other use is more operational, aimed at such tasks as helping customers reach hard-to access products or improving the checkout process. Take Best Buy. Recently, it addressed a tricky problem: What to do about displaying popular and easy to steal items, like video games and other accessories. While stores often keep such items under lock and key to prevent them from being pilfered, doing so can dissuade customers from going through the trouble of making a purchase. Working with PaR Sytems, according to Baird, Best Buy enlisted Chloe, a device with a robotic arm that moves along shelves and can retrieve products. Using a touch screen, customers can choose an item and watch Chloe get it. An added benefit:  By using vertical shelving, the store can use more floor space.

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Similarly, according to Baird, Walmart is experimenting with ways to use robots to make the process of ordering online and buying in-store easier. After customers place their orders, employees load the products into a tower. Customers receive a text message with a code, plug that number into the apparatus once they arrive at the store and automatically receive their purchase.

Then there are pilots with multi-purpose robots. Lowe's, for example, through its Lowe's Innovation Lab, introduced its LoweBot in at least 11 stores in the San Francisco area in 2016. Customers can ask the robot through voice and touch screen where to find items and other basic questions. As the LoweBots move around the aisles, asking customers if they need help finding anything, they also look for shelves that are low on inventory, alerting personnel when items need to be replenished. Plus, the real-time data they collect helps the retailer understand shopping patterns.

The robots also have produced an unexpected advantage, according to Baird. Because LoweBots are programmed to be bi-lingual. If a particular store attracts a high population of Spanish speakers, managers can easily program the robot to be able to respond in that language.  "This was a side effect that they hadn't anticipated would be such a big benefit," she says. "It changes the skills needed in retail."

It's unclear what Lowe's plans are for the future. But so far, the pilot has been successful. "I know they've been happy with the test," says Baird. "The results have been positive."

Finally, there's a completely different type of robot: the self-driving shopping cart. In 2016, Walmart got a patent for a motorized device that attaches to a cart. Customers can then summon it using a smartphone. After that, the cart can navigate the store using sensors, helping customers easily find their way. 

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