The next generation is an entirely different breed
Robots are gradually moving out of the warehouse and into public and private environments where they interact directly with human owners, co-workers and consumers. One industry which has been hugely disrupted by advanced robotics technology is retail. The application of robots has long been on the minds of marketers as a way of improving processes and to entice customers back into physical stores, especially as bricks and mortar retail is threatened by online shopping. But how exactly are robots influencing retail, and how are they doing it?
1. Customer Services
The most common use of bots in retail, and one you’re likely to have experienced firsthand, is in online and over the phone customer services. Powered by AI, conversational interfaces are learning how to handle more complex queries as they gain more experience. The next step up is actually installing a robot on the shop floor. These robots can respond to customer complaints and questions and even fetch specific products for shoppers. OSHbot, for example, is a robot that helps customers to locate any desired item in the store. Others specialise in a single job, like the coffee making robot barista Gordon. These ‘cobots’ can offer personalised customisation like a human employee might.
2. Retrieving Items
As well as creating, locating and logging items, robots in retail can manually fetch products and give them straight to the customer in store. One example is called Chloe, a bot installed at Best Buy in Chelsea, Manhattan. Chloe can pick up CDs, DVDs and other accessories based on orders submitted through nine touchscreens on the shop floor. There are some clear advantages to this – as items are kept in a storehouse, there is less chance of physical theft. Unlike a human coworker, Chloe is constantly present and doesn’t need to take breaks. This brings the efficiency of the connected production line into the store itself.
3. Warehouse and factory staff
Robotics remains vital to the factories and warehouses that produce and store consumer items. These industrial robots don’t interact with customers and are only part of the production process. Despite this, their ability to create and organise goods has become far more advanced. Robots are now equipped with such impressive dexterity that they can pack delicate fruit, handle fragile objects and even sew entire pieces of clothing. Marketers can use this to their advantage as a unique selling point.
The use of robot couriers is a relatively new application, but they’ve already been tried and tested by the retail mogul Amazon. In December 2016, JustEat announced that they had created courier robots. In partnership with Skype’s Starship Technologies, the food delivery service used a robot to send an order from Turkish restaurant Taksim Meze in London. There are currently 10 JustEat-affiliated restaurants involved in the pilot programme to test the bots in real world situations. Delivery robots could spell bad news for courier companies, but by disrupting themselves like JustEat, businesses will be able to use new technology to their advantage.
5. Stock managers
Stacking and checking shelves is both a mind numbing and time consuming job, but it’s one that we won’t be doing for much longer either. In San Francisco, Target has trialled an aptly named inventory bot called Tally that quite literally tallies up stock. As well as checking the amount of products, the robot can also detect if they have been wrongly priced or put in the wrong place. This is the perfect initial introduction for robots into big supermarkets, gradually familiarising shoppers with an in-store robot presence.
We’ve seen robots in high street stores before, but the next generation is an entirely different breed. Instead of cheap gimmicks, these new retail bots are able to give insightful answers to customer queries, locate certain items, deliver orders and track inventories. Initially, customer services robots will work alongside existing employees. However, as they gradually exceed the ability of their human counterparts, they will largely replace them. As robots become increasingly integrated with retail services across the board, human employers and employees will face the Innovator’s Dilemma yet again. Do they get on board with retail robots, or rely on traditional staff and legacy processes? That might just work for a niche Victorian sweet shop, for instance – but the vast majority of companies will need to adapt. . . and quickly.