July 26, 2016      

Although retail sales continue to increase, a majority of such sales still take place in a brick-and-mortar environment. As global competition intensifies because of new distribution channels and cheaper alternative products, retailers are looking to cut operating costs. Robot store clerks can help with greeting store patrons, stocking backroom shelves, and staying competitive.

A key component of the operating cost for brick-and-mortar retailers is labor. Retail automation can now do things such as audit inventory and replace sales associates who ask, “Can I help you?” Customer-service robots are being developed for specific retailers with their own traits and “personalities.”

Robot store clerks never stop improving

For instance, Lowes Cos. “employs” OSHbot in the stores of its Orchard Supply Hardware subsidiary. The robot speaks multiple languages and helps customers find products. Need a toilet flapper valve? Not a problem. OSHbot can bring you to the correct aisle.

The OSHbot robot shop clerk helps scan an item.

OSHbot scans a nail for a customer.

“Using science fiction prototyping, we explored solutions to improve customer experiences by helping customers quickly find the products and information they came in looking for,” said Kyle Nel, executive director of Lowe’s Innovation Labs. “As a result, we developed autonomous retail service robot technology to be an intuitive tool customers can use to ask for help, in their preferred language, and expect a consistent experience.”

Is Lowes’ use of OSHbot the best application of retail automation?

“What we need to do is strip away the idea of a shop assistant to the simple functions that need to be performed,” noted The Guardian. “For example, impart knowledge of a product range, present a particular item (or item in a certain size), and then apply the technologies we have to see how we can do this best.”

Target Corp. stores also use a robot store clerk. Simbe Robotics Inc. claims that its Tally is the world’s first autonomous shelf auditing robot. It debuted at the Food Service Institute’s FMI Connect event.

If Tally succeeds, it will be able to perform the mundane task of checking shelves in supermarkets to keep their suppliers abreast of product status and capture the real-time activity around different foods.

“Robots are a part of both business and personal lives,” said Doug Baker, vice president of private industry relations, private brands, and technology at the Food Marketing Institute in a blog post about Tally’s debut. “Currently, we see robotics primarily in manufacturing in our industry, but what can we look forward to seeing in our offices and grocery stores in the near future?”

The question will be answered in time, but meanwhile, retailers from all sectors are getting on board quickly with robot store clerks to supplement their labor requirements and meet customer needs.

In April, Bossa Nova Robotics raised $14 million for its autonomous inventory robots. The company, which has offices in Pittsburgh and San Francisco, said it’s testing its retail robots with major chains.

Best Buy's robot store clerk

Best Buy’s Chloe can retrieve products for Manhattan customers.

In the Chelsea section of downtown Manhattan, the Best Buy Co. store has its own robot: Chloe. Customers enter their desired electronics product from an interactive kiosk, and Chloe retrieves it.

The robot store clerk can deliver a movie, a case, or a host of other merchandise to the customer in as little as 30 seconds.

Retail automation seen as key to competitiveness

When consultancy Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Ltd. and MHI, a leading logistics and supply trade association, surveyed industry thought leaders about technology adoption, robotics were one of “four top technologies provide a competitive advantage” and one of the fastest-growing technologies they cited.

“Fifty-one percent of survey respondents said that robotics and automation have the potential to either create competitive advantage or be a disruptive force in their industry, and 77 percent said they will have some impact,” said the report. “Adoption is currently 35 percent. It is expected to rise to 74 percent over the next six to 10 years.”

OSHbot has been in use since 2014, and other retailers have been testing retail automation. For instance, Duane Reade Inc. had a holographic greeter in New York. More customer-service robots are likely to come.

Robots for retail will not only become more complex, sophisticated, and capable, but also more widespread — among large and small retailers alike.

Whether or not a chain has robot store clerks and how effectively they are used will factor into its competitive edge. If all goes well, robotics would help the bottom line, since there’s no work schedule, Social Security tax, healthcare benefits, or living wages to pay outside of their amortized cost and maintenance.

What will happen to minimum-wage employees in retail? While some retail robotics proponents say there is still more than enough work for everyone, it remains to be seen.

However, robot store clerks are likely to be a disruptive force for the retail industry in both the short and long term.

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