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Retail Robotics: Current and Future State

Retail Robotics: Current and Future State

One of the latest trends in retail technology is the retail robot. Some companies have had robots in place for a while; Amazon is a fantastic example because of the way it operates around 30,000 of them in its warehouses. However, we’re starting to see retail robotics in store, and while robots as a tool for customer-facing services is an emerging technology, they provide serious potential for the industry and its efficiency in serving shoppers. This post will provide an overview of robots that are being leveraged in store by retailers, what they can accomplish for companies right now, and how they need to improve to see widespread adoption and success.

In-Store Robots

Retailers are always looking for ways to make their stores more efficient, increase foot traffic, and optimize a frictionless customer experience. Given the trends in artificial intelligence, it should be no surprise that robotics is at the forefront of producing a good experience. As an emerging technology, adoption is limited, but here are a few of the robots customers might encounter while they shop.

Best Buy – Chloe

Chloe might not be the most human-like robot, but it’s been deployed at a Best Buy Manhattan location, and it’s available to customers 24/7, to offer the instant gratification that even Amazon can’t provide yet. Consisting of a yellow industrial arm that customers command through a touch-screen interface, it serves up a large portion of the store’s electronics (including end-cap items, video games, and BluRay movies), most of which, can no longer be found on the shelf there. Chloe greets customers, who then type in what they want to purchase, and Chloe retrieves it, providing a smile emoticon to indicate she’s completed the action. Chloe also tracks the available inventory that’s loaded into the machine.

Robotics Integrated at Retailers

Pepper may be one of the most recognizable robots being used in retail thanks to the fact that it’s had units piloted in stores around the world. Notably, there was also a pop-up shop in Tokyo staffed entirely by Pepper bots. It’s meant to take on customer service and utilizes AI that can interpret tone of voice and facial expressions to optimize the ability to answer questions, find products, and even chat with customers.

Lowe’s has implemented OSHbot in the San Francisco Bay Area, which offers functionality somewhere between Chloe and Pepper. It recognizes customers as they enter, provides information about special offers, and accepts inquiries by voice command or through a touch screen before leading the customer through the store to the requested item. It can also send inventory data to human sales reps.

Robots like Target’s Tally (also piloted in San Francisco) or those sold by Bossa Nova (a Pittsburgh startup) are used less for direct customer interaction and more for ensuring that stock is on the shelf while customers are shopping. They catalog what is and is not present on the shelves, identify stock that’s out of place, and provide that information to store associates along with other analytics.

Cafe X Technologies has introduced Gordon (another San Francisco pilot), a robotic barista capable of creating seven different drinks and producing 120 coffees per hour. Customers can submit their order via mobile app or at the in-store kiosk, and they’re notified by text when the drink has been prepared.

More robots are on the way as well. Walmart recently patented a self-driving cart that can assist customers with fulfilling their shopping list. Details are slim as the bot has yet to come to fruition, but it seems as though it would connect to a customer’s mobile app to directly access their list while leaving them hands free to handle stock and move freely about the store.

The Benefits of Robotics

The biggest benefit that robots provide right now is efficiency optimization. For the most part, they take on repetitive tasks that are time-intensive for customer representatives that are better served engaging with customers in ways that matter. Many of those tasks are also impossible for human employees to track well; for example, out-of-stock items and misplaced items reportedly cost retailers $1.1 trillion in missed opportunities. A robot like Chloe or Tally can monitor stock much more effectively and notify the appropriate staff when a product is selling out quickly and when product stock is low, enabling that staff to make the best decisions about which stock to order, or even which stock needs to go on sale.

Robotics can also provide customers with an expedited experience, retrieving stock or providing information in a matter of seconds. They make the shopping experience easier and less stressful, whether it’s accurately answering where a specific product is inside a vast home improvement store or helping to carry products while customers shop. And all of this will be improved as other technologies advance as well. For instance, better AI will help robots understand language and nuance and improve problem solving, while integration of data from wearables can maximize its ability to make suggestions and understand customer needs.

Things to Consider When Implementing These Technologies: User Experience and Search Capabilities

Unfortunately, for as much promise as robotics have as an emerging technology, there are still quite a few hurdles to overcome. This is easiest to see with a robot like Chloe.

  • Customer interaction: About 90% of consumers say that they’re somewhat or extremely likely to make a purchase if they receive assistance from a knowledgeable store associate. While a robot like Pepper may be trying to tackle this head on, robots like Chloe are probably easier to adopt, and interacting with them is limited to the same kind of search that a customer would perform on a website. It provides novelty, but not much substance in terms of understanding the customer or their needs.
  • Problematic interface: Emerging technologies always have challenges , and a big one for Chloe is the actual touchscreen interface. It has been reported that it isn’t user friendly, and after just a year, it’s already prone to lag and not register input. Businesses can’t afford to constantly replace touchscreens, especially if the failed interaction results in lost customers. Needing repair also takes time, and if an entire section of the store is stuck behind a broken touch screen, that’s even more sales lost.
  • Limited search capabilities: Right now, Chloe isn’t capable of recognizing a title that has a typo in it or is misspelled. This is a major flaw, especially when search engines already utilize algorithms to recognize near phrases. (Try typing “retale rbtics” into a search engine as an example.) Perhaps what’s worse is the fact that if a product isn’t in stock, the customer is sent back to the greeting page rather than being notified about the product’s status.

Retail technology is continually evolving to incorporate new options that can save company’s money while improving the customer experience. With a number of potential technologies on the horizon, retail robotics has the best opportunity to support both customer-facing and backend solutions. While early iterations of the retail robot are still a work in progress, stores have much to gain from this emerging application.