If you’ve ever been to Currys, Decathlon in Spain, or Lowe’s stores near San Francisco, you may have encountered a retail robot. Expect them to be relatively common soon as ABI Research recently predicted that the utilization of these examples is just the beginning of something grand.
Automation and robotics present a great opportunity for retailers, who are always looking to balance their omnichannel experience and costs while catering to changing customer preferences.
Initially, this technology was just being utilized by the retail industry in back-office operations such as warehousing. But, lately, it has been applied to last-mile fulfillment and has provided assistance on the shop floor.
Families, particularly those with small children, have been entranced by the robot.
People have a love-hate relationship with automated checkout machines, which is why it shouldn’t be surprising if some have similar feelings about humanoid robots.
“Families, especially those with young kids, have generally been mesmerized by the robot and what it can do,” says Ainsley Sykes, head of commercial initiatives and retail design at Currys. She admits that staff in the four stores trialing the technology were “apprehensive” about their plastic colleagues at first.
But, the original apprehension surrounding the introduction of Currys’ KettyBots has been replaced by a sense of security – employees now understand that these robots are not a threat to their jobs, but rather an assistance in handling customer transactions. In addition, they have provided key insights into customer communication.
Retail technology consultant and Amazon and Omnichannel Retail co-author Miya Knights states that the KettyBot currently represents the views of larger retailers. According to her, robots are part of a broader trend toward in-store automation. Several shoe retailers have adopted Volumental’s 3D foot scanner, and Target has partnered with vendor Clockwork to offer a machine that provides 10-minute manicures to busy shoppers.
As retailers continue to automate, a crucial question arises about their intentions: are they trying to enhance the customer experience or reduce labor costs? Knights suggests that it’s probably a bit of both.
While companies struggle to balance technological efficiency and the human touch, reducing the amount of time front-line employees spend on low-value tasks can give them more opportunities to transform store visitors into loyal customers and brand advocates.
Management consultancy BearingPoint partner Stuart Higgins shares this view. He argues that using robots for menial work should allow store staff to concentrate on performing “more value-adding and satisfying roles focused on improving customer satisfaction and sales.” The KettyBots employed by Currys are an excellent example of this.
The key is to comprehend what customers want from their human and synthetic shop assistants and figure out how to deliver those things. While some of the initial crop of in-store robots may appear a little gimmicky, Higgins claims that some retailers have made real progress in finding ways to make the shopping experience smoother and more efficient. For instance, Zara’s concept store at Battersea Power Station in London allows customers to collect an online order by scanning the barcode on their confirmation email at the collection point.
PAL Robotics has been doing similar things with its StockBot, which sports retail giant Decathlon has adopted. Alexandre Saldes Barbera, director of innovation business development at PAL Robotics, which also has a humanoid retail bot called ARI, says deploying robots effectively in a store is a complex undertaking.
According to him, the retailer may be rearranging things in the store daily. To this end, StockBot can perform automated inventory counts several times a day if required. It can also identify the location of any product on the premises.
In a way, this is a return to basics – retailers should identify the most common issues their customers face and determine how this new technology can solve these recurring problems. Knights points to the growing influence of Generation Z, the first fully digital-native generation that has grown up with e-commerce. “Gen-Z shoppers want self-service options and they expect accurate inventory information and rapid fulfillment,” she says. “Many surveys have found that they’re also in favor of robots to deliver these differentiators.”
The challenge, therefore, is to determine where retailers can obtain the most return on their automation investments and provide the seamless experiences that all consumers, not just Gen-Zers, increasingly demand. Robots will undoubtedly have a role to play in areas such as inventory and fulfillment. Given the drive for improved omnichannel experiences, this makes a lot of sense. Putting bots on the shop floor, giving them faces, and asking them to schmooze with customers may be a little more difficult to assess. However, if you do go down that road, be cautious about what you name them, although there are probably worse things that could happen to a robot than viral humiliation on social media.