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Heading into 2020, brick-and-mortar retailers found themselves struggling with a number of serious challenges, including intense ecommerce pressure, rising costs, and loss of productivity, to name but a few. Fast forward a year, and those challenges have become more acute (and numerous) thanks to the emergence of the COVID-19 global pandemic.
The health crisis quickly brought the value of automation and robotics sharply into focus, and forced retail operations executives who had previously discounted or pushed off investing in the emerging technology to reconsider. With the pandemic surging and shopping patterns quickly evolving, interest in retail robotics is growing. Below are some predictions for how autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) will continue to shape the retail landscape in 2021 and beyond.
Robotics deployments within retail outlets of different sizes will continue to accelerate in 2021 as more retailers come to understand their strategic value.
Robots Evolve From Novel to Necessary
As recently as two years ago, robotic scrubbers, vacuums, and other self-driving machines that operate in high-traffic public locations such as retail environments were considered a novelty — interesting, but not essential. This view changed with the pandemic, which acted as an accelerate for mobile robot deployments. As systems proliferated, and ROI and other operation data became more widely available, it was demonstrated that robotics provide many benefits to retailers of all sizes, becoming indispensable to regular store operations.
As cleaning workloads increased exponentially with the onset of the Covid pandemic, regional chains including Schnucks and Giant Eagle, along with big box retailers like Walmart, quickly increased their usage of autonomous scrubbers to support workers and enhance efficiency. According to Brain Corp data, the median usage of robotic scrubbers at US retail locations spiked by 14.5% during the first three quarters of the year compared to the same period in 2019, generating an estimated 2.4 million hours of productivity.
The use of the scrubbers freed up workers to focus on higher value tasks, including sanitizing high-contact surfaces, restocking inventory, supporting customers, or even taking much needed breaks. Robotics deployments within retail outlets of different sizes will continue to accelerate in 2021 as more retailers come to understand their strategic value.
Robotic Data Verifies and Improves Operational Performance
One of the key (and often hidden) benefits of autonomous robots is the ability to get near real-time usage data through email reporting and cloud-based user portals. For example, cleaning robots provide detailed metrics on KPIs such as store areas covered, number of routes run, and percentage of autonomous usage, as well as visual heat maps of areas cleaned and much more. This data is difficult to glean via traditional, manual methods, and it allows operations and facilities managers to verify and optimize daily cleaning performance, as well as better manage corporate compliance goals. In 2021, we can expect to see managers and daily operators using robotic data to improve their operations and show clear “proof of work” metrics.
Dual-function Robots Lead to New Efficiencies
In addition to recording usage data, next-generation in-store robots will evolve to also capture environmental data that can be turned into actionable insights for improving operational performance. Early adopters such as Sam’s Club are already conducting retail shelf analytics pilots that integrate an innovative data-scanning accessory into existing robotic floor scrubbers. Instead of using two separate robots to clean and analyze inventory, one robot with both capabilities can improve in-store shopping experiences with less disruption and at lower cost. The introduction of dual purpose data-collecting robots for various applications supports a broader trend toward the digital transformation of physical stores.
In-store Robots = Good Retail Experiences
Self-driving robots may have received quizzical looks from shoppers in the past, but today they receive fewer second glances. National retail chains have ramped up use of robotic scrubbers during the pandemic and are increasingly deploying them during the daytime. In fact, daytime usage of robotic scrubbers at US retailers jumped by 133% during the first three quarters of the year compared to last year, according to Brain Corp’s internal data. Increased usage and public visibility are translating into increased consumer comfort around robots, which in turn empowers retailers to expand investment in robotic applications.
Until recently, autonomous robots were mostly confined to tightly controlled warehouse and manufacturing settings where they could be closely monitored by engineers. But autonomous solutions must be accessible for non-technical users in order to be viable in commercial public settings such as retail and grocery stores.
Retail Stores Become Multi-robot Environments
Cleaning robots are by far the most popular type of robotic application within retail, but autonomous solutions for in-store delivery and retail shelf analytics are gaining steam. According to ABI Research, total annual shipments of AMRs will reach more than 2.5 million by 2030 across multiple industry verticals, including retail. This is great for productivity but raises an issue: how to manage siloed robotic applications from different manufacturers. Retailers will likely begin to evaluate a platform-based approach (such as the one offered by Brain Corp) that can manage multiple retail robotics applications from various equipment manufacturers. A unified, cloud-connected approach will make it easier for retailers to manage robotic fleets by providing centralized data hosting and reporting, built-in safety protocols, connected user experiences, and automatic software upgrades.
Robots Become Increasingly Intuitive and Easier to Use
Until recently, autonomous robots were mostly confined to tightly controlled warehouse and manufacturing settings where they could be closely monitored by engineers. But autonomous solutions must be accessible for non-technical users in order to be viable in commercial public settings such as retail and grocery stores. Robots used in retail environments must include intuitive user interfaces, graphical reporting, and easy deployment instructions, or employees will consider them too difficult to use and revert back to traditional methods. Simplified user experiences with retail and other verticals will become a baseline requirement for all public-facing commercial robots.
Robotics Value and ROI Expands Beyond Cost Savings
Autonomous robots deliver great cost savings, but their benefits go far beyond just dollars and cents. By taking care of dull, repetitive tasks, robots deliver additional hours of productivity that enable workers to focus on other important tasks, such as spending more time with customers.
Robots also help to enhance brand value as they are a strong visual reminder of a company’s commitment to operational sophistication and general innovation. As more retailers become aware of the long-term advantages of robotic adoption, we can expect to see the retail industry adopt a new approach to evaluating innovative technologies using a more holistic definition of ROI.
Robots Redefine ‘Cleanliness’, a Key Pillar of Brand Value
Until the pandemic, cleaning was considered something to be done on the “third shift” — late at night after the store had closed. That changed with the onset of the pandemic, as fearful shoppers have reduced their regular trips and begun shopping online. In one study conducted by C+R Research, which surveyed over 2,000 consumers about their grocery shopping habits and experience in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, 60% of shoppers said they feared going shopping because of the pandemic.
To assuage shoppers’ concerns, retailers have had to dramatically upgrade their cleaning programs, including by adding robotic cleaners, and engage in around-the-clock cleaning. This probably won’t change anytime soon, even with a potential vaccine on the horizon. Visible cleanliness has become a permanent brand value for many grocers and retailers.
Once-in-a-Generation Health Crisis
Enhanced robotic support for e-commerce fulfillment centers and an expansion of robotic ecosystems to include things like low-level customer support are other likely trends for the coming year. 2020 has been a watershed year for robotics due to a once-in-a-generation health crisis. Within a span of a few months, robots became essential to the success of retail outlets and familiar sights in many major shopping locations. We expect that trend to accelerate into the new year and well beyond.
About the Author
Phil Duffy is Vice President of Product at Brain Corp, where he leads a multi-disciplined Product and Program Management team focused on exploring new markets and product opportunities based on the company’s pioneering BrainOS AI robotic technology. A serial entrepreneur and experienced product strategist, Duffy has more than 20 years leadership experience in product management, marketing and product development.
Duffy graduated from Boston University with an MBA in Innovation and Marketing. He also holds a BA in Industrial Design Engineering from the University of Teesside (UK).
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