Talking about the future of retail robots

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Steven Keith Platt is wired to know robots. Platt, who is director and research fellow at the Platt Retail Institute, has been enamored with all things robotic — if not all things that move — since, at age five, his grandfather presented him with a battery-powered car that was big enough for Platt to sit in and drive around the room.

Platt also serves as research director at the Retail Analytics Council, an initiative between Northwestern University and Platt Retail Institute which focuses on the use of technology to impact the customer experience.

On April 26, the Retail Analytics Council and Platt Retail Institute will host the first Retail Robotics and AI Conference at Northwestern University’s San Francisco campus. Platt, who has lectured on retail and technology around the globe, discussed the fast-changing future of retail and robotics with STORES contributing writer Bruce Horovitz.

What exactly is a robot?

A robot has certain cognitive capabilities. It has to have the ability to move around without crashing into things — so there’s navigation. It also performs certain physical functions using robotics.

Who used robots first?

General Motors introduced them in 1961 in production lines focused on repetitive manufacturing tasks.
Who used robots first in retail?

The first in retail were in Amazon warehouses. Amazon has more than 100,000 in its warehouses.
What is the current state of robotics in retail?

The current iteration is twofold. There are service robots that help direct customers to product and provide them with relevant information, and there are shelf audit robots.

What’s the next major growth area for robotics?

Radio frequency identification. The technology has been around forever, but retailers are now starting to adopt it in a major way. Macy’s recently did a 15-month test. Some 80 percent of its inventory was RFID-tagged. The benefits are phenomenal. With RFID, you can go from a once-a-year physical count of inventory to monthly, daily or even hourly. The benefits of inventory accuracy are huge. That way you’re not ordering stuff that isn’t selling.

You are ordering stuff that is selling. And you’re able to find your merchandise down to a single item in a single store.

Are robots going to take over retail?

“Take over” is an amorphous term. It’s not one I would use. I don’t see a totally robotized store for a while. In retail, I think of it more like car manufacturing, where people and automation are working side by side, complementing each other. With robots, there’s a labor cost savings, productivity enhancement and accuracy enhancement. Robots don’t make mistakes like humans.

Will retailers be able to replace all their cashiers with robotics?

Frictionless checkout won’t be about robot cashiers. I could see robots roaming stores and helping to load and pack groceries and assist with checkout, but that’s a while out. But a different form of frictionless checkout is coming quickly, where the customer simply waves a wand to scan their merchandise.

Will the Amazon Go store set a retail trend?

The way they have deployed the technology is not scalable. There are better ways to achieve the same thing. Amazon can’t scale that technology. It’s very expensive the way they’re doing it. The technology requires a massive number of cameras and a ton of object recognition. There is a massive amount of data, so you need a lot of computer power.

What do you prefer?

RFID is very inexpensive and there’s no need for cameras. We also like facial pay. A customer loads the cart and you have pre-registered with facial technology. The cost of that is a fraction of Amazon Go.
Why has retail lagged in robotics?

If you look at manufacturing, you have a controlled environment with simple, repetitive tasks. But in retail, it’s much more complex. You have people, products, shelves and lighting.

If I’m a retailer, how do I know if robotics could help me?

McKinsey advanced a five-point evaluation for considering robotic applications: Is it technically feasible? What is the cost? Is there a human labor cost offset? Do its benefits increase productivity? And is there regulatory and social acceptance?

Will retail customers accept robots in the store?

It’s like other new things. When they started introducing ATMs, nobody liked them. But once you get used to it and realize all the benefits, you feel differently. People will come to accept them.

How are robots getting better?

The biggest developments are about their ability to manipulate functions in complex environments — like shelf audits. The next iteration will be RFID. After that, you’ll have robots capable of stocking store shelves. That requires tremendous manual dexterity. Each shelf is different and each item is different.

Which retailers are advanced in their use of robotics?

Target has tested robots in San Francisco to track store inventory. Ahold USA is testing them at a Giant store in Pennsylvania to look for out-of-stock items and floor hazards that might cause someone to slip. Best Buy has Chloe, a one-armed robot that retrieves merchandise, and Walmart is testing them at 50 stores in shelf audit. It may not be robotics, but Kroger is really advanced and sophisticated in its use of digital technology.

What retail sector stands to benefit most from robots?

Mass and grocery. Big stores with lots of labor and things that need to be placed on shelves.

Will Millennials be the first generation to fully embrace robots?

My nephew, who is 15, is in a robot club at school that competes with others. He lives, breaths and eats robots.

These clubs travel all over the country and even go to global competitions. This generation is more accepting of robots than any other.

What does the future of robotics and retailing look like?

For one, robots will become intelligent shopping agents. They will greet you, walk you to the shelf and help you find the product you want once you get there.

How will robots change retailing?

Robots will lead to new types of retailers that don’t even exist today. It’s not about how the robot will adapt to the retail environment, but how the retail store will change to accommodate the robot.

Bruce Horovitz, a freelance writer, is a former USA Today marketing reporter and Los Angeles Times marketing columnist. He can be reached at brucehorovitz@gmail.com.

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