Robotics in retail: When fantasy becomes a reality

Robotics in retail: When fantasy becomes a reality

By Vinayak Khattar

As Amazon and Google engage in an intense rivalry over Echo and Alexa vs. Google Home, the Internet of Things (IoT) revolution is set in motion and is guaranteed to take on the world by storm. Robotic advances are progressing just as rapidly. Our world is poised to come alive with robotic activities, akin to a Toy Story–like scenario, where robotic devices powered by artificial intelligence (AI) will be able to do our chores behind our backs. This has now become a reality in the retail sector, where robotics is being increasingly used to track inventory, gauge customer satisfaction, streamline checkouts, remove snags in supply chain pipelines, and deliver products to the customer. Here, we describe a handful of robotic advances in the retail sector within the last few years that are dramatically changing the way shopping outlets conduct business worldwide.

Artificial intelligence and robots are changing the nature of customer experience in retail sectors across the board

A large majority of technologies described here are controlled by powerful AI-driven computer vision technology. This technology involves utilizing a large amount of preassembled data and a then superimposing it on machine learning programs, pattern recognition capabilities, and training algorithms in order to “mathematically teach” robotic cameras to recognize spatial inconsistencies (identify misplaced objects in an inventory, for example) and discern facial features (e.g., determine like or dislike of a product based on a smile or a scowl).

Robots can overcome logistic constraints and enhance the customer experience 

Don’t you just hate it when you walk into a Walmart looking for some obscure product and it takes a long time to find it? To solve problems like these, early last year Walmart deployed shelf-scanning autonomous robots in 50 stores across the country. These six-foot robots purchased from Bossa Nova Robotics march up and down the store aisles, scanning them for misplaced products or incorrect prices and then inform store employees of shelving errors. The idea behind this endeavor is to squeeze critical time from mundane shelving tasks, allowing the regular sales employees to engage with the customers and assist them in finding desired products quickly within the labyrinth of aisles that exist in Walmart. According to Jeremy King, the chief technology officer for Walmart, these robots are 50% more productive and three times faster than their human counterparts.

Building on this success, Walmart is also testing other robotic technologies as well. A prime example is DASH, a robotic shopping cart that is being developed in partnership with Five Elements Robotics, with a goal of streamlining inventory management and assisting customers in carrying merchandise across the store. Some other advances from the retail giant that could simplify the delivery of groceries include flyer drones and Waymo self-driving cars.

Following closely behind is Target, which is currently toying around with Tally, a similar shelf-scanning robot that the retail giant recently acquired from California-based Simbe Robotics.

In contrast to Walmart and Target, which seem to be jumping on the robotics bandwagon only recently, Lowe’s began deploying LoweBots – personal shopper robots that speaks multiple languages and will fetch a tiny 2-inch screw within thousands of home improvement products sold at Lowe’s – back in 2016. Best Buy’s Chloe deployed a year earlier in a Manhattan Best Buy branch located in Chelsea, New York, was used to achieve 24/7 gadget pick-up services for its tech-savvy clientele.

The fashion retail sector is not too far behind in embracing this revolution. Zara, the Spanish retail giant, is systematically complementing its BOPIS (buy online, pick up in store) methodology with “click and collect” robots, which scan backroom inventories and put the products in easily collectible drop boxes at the front end of the store.

Inspired by the success of Kiva’s deployment in 2014 of robots that saved Amazon almost 20% in operating expenses by efficiently retrieving products from its mammoth warehouses, the company recently launched Amazon Go stores. This masterstroke promises to disrupt the retail sector forever. These cashierless stores allow you to check in by scanning your app, bag your products, and then simply walk out as the AI-powered technology seamlessly bills your card behind the scenes when you pick the items off the shelves. This shopping experience, which Amazon adorably refers to as the “Just Walk Out” technology, is predicted to grow by more than 3000 stores and surpass a market value of $4 billion by 2021.

Robots can be used to gauge customer experience

Despite this automation, the mantra of success in the retail sector is, and will always be, pleasing the customer. This invariably requires measuring customer satisfaction. Recognizing the potential of robots for enthralling customers and increasing foot traffic in malls, many retail industries are toying with the idea of using Pepper, a cute semi-humanoid robotic creature that was launched by the Japanese company SoftBank Robotics in 2014.

The robot’s capability to understand and respond to four basic human emotions has been put to work recently by various retail stores to cajole customers and gauge their satisfaction. Besides serving as a welcome distraction for male shoppers stuck shopping with their significant others, the robot can accomplish tasks such as talking with customers, collecting user surveys, answering basic questions, and giving directions. The prime example is Nestle, which commissioned more than 1000 Pepper robots to assist customers in locating coffee machines. Japan, Europe, and Singapore have been more welcoming, having embraced the technology wholeheartedly with more than 10,000 Pepper robots currently stationed in retails stores across these countries.

Robotics in the retail sector is here to stay despite ominous labor-replacing predictions

According to Chris Isidore, a Senior Writer at CNN Business, the expansion of robotics in the retail sector could replace more than 7.5 million workers worldwide, with cashier jobs predicted to bear the lion’s share of the brunt. On the other hand, a report from PwC predicts that savings on operating costs brought about by robotic advances may actually free up some expenses, leading to a net increase in the number of jobs in certain countries. According to Bekryl Market Analysts, the worldwide retail robots market size is currently pegged at $20 billion and is predicted to exhibit a compound annual growth rate of 30% in the next decade.

Despite the ominous job-replacing debates by labor advocates, the deployment of an increasing number of Chloes, Peppers, Amazon Go stores, Echos, Alexas, LowBots, Kivas, and other futuristic IoT devices and retail robots have ushered a fourth AI-powered industrial revolution that is here to stay.       

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