Retail Robots are Here to Stay – Start Preparing Now
November 25, 2019      

I am frequently asked if robots in the retail center store are here to stay, and who is leading in this field. Retailers are trying to identify who they should be looking at as possible partners. With this potential disruptive phenomenon to the ecosystem, strategic companies are looking to figure out how to get in the game and be part of it. The robot players themselves are identifying how to position their services and demonstrate value. And finally, data companies and brokers aim to provide services to consumer packaged goods companies.

The answer on who will succeed is complicated, especially as newcomers surface. Companies such as Quopius collaborating with Metralabs are bringing a new approach. There are whispers of hardware companies such as Zebra trying to build a solution in this space as well. Investments are increasing, which will drive expansion.

Look at the latest news: Simbe Robotics raised $26 million. Amazon’s continued expansion into physical stores, and retailers like Walmart and Kroger expanding home delivery and store-pickup services. This is in addition to Bossa Nova Robotics raising more than $80 million, and increasing its deployment at Walmart. Badger Technologies, backed by parent company Jabil, continues to grow with its spill detection robot. Zippedi stealthily and steadily coming far in the U.S. market, tackling complicated problems with multiple deployments.  

I’m encouraged by seeing the renewed excitement and spotlight on retail technologies. Regardless of where investments are made – brick or click – it’s all connected, and shows that brick is here to stay, and robots are part of its future.

The basic questions remain the same

As I’ve outlined in previous articles – the main questions for retailers thinking about deploying robots remain the same: Can a solution accurately, repeatedly and autonomously, at scale, function in retail stores by processing collected data and solving real business problems?

Robot companies answer these questions with different degrees of success and reliability. They should be able to demonstrate their capabilities quickly to show the level of maturity of their solution. Continuing to advance and develop (looking beyond the overzealousness of some startups), there is work to be done to identify what’s current and what’s forward-looking in their portfolio of capabilities.

The advanced questions

Beyond the basics, another set of questions organizations need to ask depends on their goals when reviewing these solutions. Questions like team makeup, product maturity, diverse customer deployment, amount raised, etc. This is the area I have been focused on helping organizations identify.

Are you a retailer, investor or existing solution provider looking to expand your offerings, and what is your organization’s strategic goal? Depending on the answers, you can build a plan to identify your best match and start your journey with the path of least resistance and most positive results.

Identity crisis

Six years ago, I was part of one of the first companies to build a robot for retail and test it in a live store. I certainly know the challenges and complications to build a robot at scale that can map a store and autonomously navigate the aisles and collect imagery to be processed to provide shelf insights. Perhaps it’s not as complicated as autonomous cars driving on our streets, avoiding obstacles and getting us to our destinations, but it’s complex nonetheless.

Robots collecting data in retail at scale is overdue. With the right maturity and strategic thinking, we will see rapid advancement toward scale in the next year. Once at scale, this will facilitate a truly connected supply chain and drive efficiencies and insights the industry is starved for. Until then, all the talk about AI in retail, predictability, and true space-based insights is academic.

Lessons learned

Retail adaption to new technology is not easy – it’s usually slow, most often fizzles, and becomes a fading memory. Think back to the RFID initiatives.

However, there has not been a more exciting time to be in retail technology. We will see advances at a much more rapid pace than in the past. This will happen when robots start to scale – it will be an awakening to the industry.

The grounding and guiding principle for any solution is how well does it continue to enhance the shopper experience, and bring value to the retailer at scale, as well as continuously showing a real return on investment.

Who is on the right track?

All of the shelf insights robots are working to the same goal. Currently, each of them excels in one or more areas, but none have the complete package yet, or the characteristics needed for longevity. Some are good at raising funds, most are struggling on the processing side, hardware cost is in the works, but very few have figured out the successful model.

Some have impressed me by coming so far, showing maturity in strategizing and executing. I will report on them in my next article.

Overall, robots in retail are here to stay – if you are in retail, you should start planning now on how to adopt them in a continuously evolving fashion. Anything short of that is being in denial.

About the author: Georges Mirza has been ahead of trends developing retail/CPG market leading industry changing solutions. He led the charge and established the roadmap for robotic indoor data collection, image recognition and analytics for retail to address out of stock, inventory levels and compliance. Georges currently advises companies on how to strategize and prioritize their roadmaps for growth. Follow him on LinkedIn, Twitter or email.