Beyond big-name uses, robots are becoming more prevalent in retail

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For decades, futurists have been talking about a time when robots would be widespread, doing everything from cleaning homes to serving food at restaurants. That vision hasn’t materialized at the pace originally thought, but artificial intelligence, mobility and connectivity have made robots more advanced than ever. Robots can move, grip, perform tasks, “think” through artificial intelligence and operate with a high level of autonomy.

Major retailers are increasing their adoption of robots both behind the scenes and on the sales floor. Walmart announced in April it would further its drive toward automation with a new fleet of 1,500 autonomous floor-cleaning robots, 300 shelf-scanning robots, 1,200 automated unloaded systems and 900 new Pickup Towers for customers to pick up online purchases in the store.

Amazon now has more than 100,000 robots operating in its distribution centers around the world and is continually looking into new robotic applications. In April, it announced it would spend more than $800 million to make one-day shipping the new standard for Prime members; many analysts expect that will include new automation initiatives. Since January, Amazon has been testing six Amazon Scout robots to deliver packages in Snohomish, Wash.; it’s also working on a next-generation warehouse robot called Hercules that can lift 1,250 pounds — 500 pounds more than its predecessor.

While Amazon and Walmart’s initiatives aren’t surprising, many small and mid-sized retailers are also testing robots.

“There are some pretty massive deployments of robots in retail now, and they’re ramping up fairly dramatically to address a number of issues in the industry,” says Stephen Platt, director and research fellow at the Platt Retail Institute and research director at the Retail Analytics Council.

New navigation and cognitive abilities have enabled robots to become more agile and take on more tasks, from moving products at distribution centers to helping direct customers around the store. “Most of the technology is ultimately to relieve staff of mundane tasks to focus on more value-added, customer-facing activities,” Platt says.

Several factors are driving the rapid adoption of robots, says Martin Hitch, chief business officer at Bossa Nova Robotics. While Wi-Fi connectivity and advances in the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence have grown, the cost of such technologies and components has also fallen. Meanwhile, rising labor rates and competitive pressures have driven many retailers to look to new technologies and innovation.

“There has been a convergence of trends that has made it real,” Hitch says. “The technology is becoming cheaper and there’s new development in IoT, self-driving vehicles and components like [3D laser scanning], navigation and cameras.”

FILLING THE GAPS

While robots can perform many tasks, some of the most promising deal with inventory. Schnuck Markets, a Midwest supermarket chain with more than 100 stores, has deployed Tally robots in nine of its stores and is the process of deploying six more. The robots go out three times daily to count all merchandise in the 60,000-square-foot store, except fresh produce and frozen goods. The robots can count approximately 30,000 SKUs in two to three hours — three times faster than humans, says Dave Steck, vice president of IT infrastructure and application development at Schnucks.

“We have APIs in place to notify us when there’s an outage on the shelf. That will go to teammates on a handheld device, they’ll investigate it and act,” Steck says. “The robot is exposing [issues]for us that we didn’t know existed.”

Tally is manufactured by Simbe Robotics and is designed to help retailers better manage the state of merchandise on shelves, along with things like pricing and promotional execution. The robots travel around the stores on a pre-determined path during normal hours to capture 2D and 3D imagery of store shelves, then processes that information in real time using computer vision and machine learning to look for key insights around which products are out of stock, missing facings, misplaced or have incorrect tabs.

Tally is not only more accurate and faster than humans, it also releases them to focus on customers, says Brad Bogolea, co-founder and CEO of Simbe Robotics.

“Tally is a tool to help fill some of those gaps better,” Bogolea says. “Because in the retail world, customer service is everything, and as humans we’re much better at providing that service.”

Giant Eagle, a supermarket chain with more than 470 locations in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Indiana and Maryland, has deployed Tally robots in three of its locations. The robots have freed up members from the time-consuming task of inventory audits to focus more on interacting with guests, says spokeswoman Jannah Jablonoski.

“It really adds value at the store level because it takes a huge burden off the team members,” she says. “At the end of the day, it all comes back to customer service and making sure we’re meeting the needs of our customers every time they walk into the store.”

Retailers that have deployed robots to handle inventory say there’s a strong return on investment: A recent survey by JDA Software Group found more than three-quarters of respondents said they couldn’t track inventory in real time, and 55 percent don’t have a single view of product levels across distribution channels. A recent study by IHL Group found that retailers could be losing up to $1 trillion in sales annually due to out-of-stocks. Robot-assisted inventory counts can offer a clear ROI by not only saving human labor hours but by being able to take multiple counts per day with more timely and accurate data, Bogolea says.

VERSATILE APPLICATIONS

With a solid payload and navigation system, robots can be repurposed for many applications. When outfitted with additional sensors, they could easily be called upon to complete several tasks at once, Platt says.

“The ROI drivers of these things are going to vastly increase. There’s inexpensive value add with additional sensor devices. Take a floor scrubber going up and down the aisles — one could easily add a sensor device to track traffic up and down the aisles,” Platt says.

Tally robots can count approximately 30,000 SKUs in two to three hours — three times faster than humans.

Other robotic applications are coming to market, including one that can stack shelves and another that can determine the age of produce. In addition, Platt says, retailers that deploy RFID and make better use of the data may find all sorts of new applications.

To bring greater ability to the system, Schnucks is using Tally robots to map the coordinates of all products in the stores. At stores with Tally data, customers can use their rewards app to build a shopping list that will give the aisle location as they walk through the store to find their items in the most efficient manner.

Ahold Delhaize, parent company of Giant and Stop & Shop, is rolling out “Marty” robots in 500 stores to scan for hazards such as spills and report to associates when corrective actions are needed. The robots are also adaptable; if an area is prone to spills, it can roll through the entire area instead of just scanning for issues.

CUSTOMER SERVICE AND HUMAN INTERACTION

Many robots that operate near customers are designed with discrete, low profile designs — Schnucks went with Tally because the robot “doesn’t draw much attention from customers,” Steck says.

Pepper, a 4-foot-tall humanoid robot with a tablet on its chest, was built for human interaction. SoftBank Robotics, Pepper’s manufacturer, designed the robot to engage people as they come into a store and then offer information or refer them to an associate.

Pepper is currently being used in fast-food restaurants in Tokyo where it frees up staff to focus more on engaging customers. And last year, HSBC Bank rolled out Pepper at its Manhattan flagship location to greet customers, streamline branch operations and enable staff to have deeper and more high-value customer engagements.

“The design of the robot is specifically built to interact with people,” says Kass Dawson, head of marketing communications at SoftBank. “Rather than a kiosk which is static and often ignored by people, Pepper can come over to them, ask them a question and point them in the right direction.”

While Pepper does have limitations with human engagement, one advantage is that people are more inclined to be open and honest with a robot, Dawson says. “Whether it’s not wanting to be sold, to be judged or whatever the case may be,” he says, “people let their guard down and are willing to have that first interaction with Pepper and have it point them in the right direction.”

THE FUTURE

Past experience demonstrates the best technology applications are those that ultimately enhance the customer experience. There can often be a gap between executive and customer perception of technology, according to the Future of Retail study by Oracle NetSuite: While 73 percent of executives says the ambience in retail stores has become more inviting in the past five years, only 45 percent of consumers agree.

The relationship robots could have with humans will also become an important factor as the technology grows. Americans have many fears around automation, especially when it comes to jobs. Roughly half of U.S. adults say automation through new technology in the workforce has hurt workers, according to a survey by Pew. In addition, three-quarters believe inequality between the rich and poor will increase if robots and computers perform most of the jobs being done by humans by 2050.

Only 5 percent of consumers in the Oracle NetSuite study selected robots and chatbots as the technologies they most wanted to utilize when shopping in the store. And a recent study from the Brookings Institution found 61 percent of U.S. adult respondents were either somewhat or very uncomfortable with robots. While the technology is growing, researchers found there’s a barrier of unwillingness to accept machine replacement of some tasks.

Robots do have many benefits over humans, especially when it comes to dull or repetitive tasks. They don’t get bored, distracted, tired or frustrated. They don’t question the work or have feelings. They don’t need sick time, vacation or days off. And in many retail applications, robots are far superior: A Bossa Nova robot can scan an 80-foot aisle in only 90 seconds and analyze it on the fly. “Within five minutes, all the tasks to remerchandise, restock, change anything on that aisle are delivered to associates and then we’re onto the next aisle and the next one,” Hitch says.

But capabilities like this are more about supplementing and enhancing human labor than replacing it; while Bossa Nova can identify the problems, it can’t fix them. That job will likely be one that only humans can handle for years to come. “At the end of the day, we’re creating the tasks, not executing them,” Hitch says. “Our job is really to automate the process that is dull and that humans haven’t been very good at.”

Craig Guillot is based in New Orleans and writes about retail, real estate, business and personal finance. Read more of his work at www.craigdguillot.com.

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