Why is there a robot in my store?

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During a lively session on the Innovation Stage Monday afternoon, Joe Skorupa, editorial director of RIS News, moderated a discussion of the present and future status of front-of-store robotics in the retail industry.

The three panelists — Nick Bertram, president of Giant Food Stores, Steven Keith Platt, director and research fellow with the Retail Analytics Council, and Tim Rowland, CEO of Badger Technologies — were participants in a project that led to the introduction of a 6-foot-3-inch-tall rolling robot named Marty into the daily life of grocery stores in Harrisburg and Carlisle, Pa. “We wanted to personify the robot,” Bertram said, “so we gave him googly eyes and a name. The customers love him, especially the kids. They’ve taken thousands of selfies with him.”

Marty rolls around the store unassisted, and is used to identify items such as liquid, powder and bulk-food item spills. Beginning this week, similar robots will be introduced into all Giant and Martin’s food markets, with the goal of completion toward the middle of this year. (Giant Food of Maryland LLC has 169 stores and 159 full service pharmacies in Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington, D.C.)

The panelists began by offering thumbnail descriptions of their organizations and how they came to be involved with Marty and its cohorts. An initiative between Northwestern University and the Platt Retail Institute, the Retail Analytics Council describes itself as the leading organization focused on the study of consumer shopping behavior across retail platforms and the impact of technology. Badger Technologies is a subsidiary of Jabil Industries, a manufacturing services company that specializes in design engineering and supply chain logistics.

Right now, Marty trundles around the store looking for messes on the floor. Bertram has plans to expand its areas of operation; a probable early new application will be to scan the shelves as it goes and notify management of out-of-stock items. The driving purpose for this project, all three panelists made clear, is not to replace human beings with robots; it is to free people up to focus on the customers. “Labor is a scarce and expensive resource,” Platt said, “which raises the question of where it is best employed.”

One thing the RAC is sure of, Platt observed, is that a good customer experience is important to retail success. Another is that person-to-person interaction with associates is a key ingredient of a good customer experience. Yet another is that retailers lose money on out-of-stocks. It stands to reason, then, that if Marty can take over the chore of preventing out-of-stocks, associates can make profitable use of their time.

Rowland said Marty went through numerous design iterations before it was released onto the floor of an active store. “It scared the daylights out of my engineers,” he said, “but it’s gone well.” Which, Bertram said, it needed to do. “I said to everybody — especially myself — it can’t fail. If you’re going to lead, you better lead right.”

In assessing the project, both Rowland and Bertram looked for an application with a relatively quick ROI. “Next we want to look at ways to cut and, where possible, eliminate waste,” Rowland said. “I love the ‘cool factor,’ but until it turns into something Nick Bertram will give me money for, it’s not ready to go.”

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