5 Ways Retail Robots Are Disrupting the Industry

Credit: Bossa Nova Robotics

August 02, 2018      
Kayla Matthews

Most people are aware of the robots that are involved with assembling, packing, or handling items before they reach retail stores. Now, some retail robots are starting to change how human employees work and shoppers purchase goods in stores. Here are some tasks that retail robots are conducting and where consumers can see them in daily life.

1. Retail robots can spot mistakes on shelf labels

It’s frustrating for both cashiers and consumers when people try to pay for items and discover something’s ringing up at a different price than what the shelf tag indicated.

Walmart has deployed mobile robots from Bossa Nova Robotics in 50 stores. These retail robots move through the aisles and use cameras to identify problems with the labels on shelves. When they find errors, they alert humans to fix the problems.

This system could be more efficient than using humans alone to identify label issues. Also, the robots might find discrepancies that sales floor team members miss.

2. They can sell things

Research indicates millennials make up nearly a quarter of the U.S. population and are responsible for $200 billion in purchases every year. In comparison with previous generations, millennials also supposedly put a higher value on convenience and don’t mind trading human interactions for faster, automated experiences.

With that in mind, some retailers are experimenting with retail robots that handle the roles humans normally fill.

A humanoid robot called Pepper has a human-like face and a tablet on its chest, and Nestlé has used it in numerous Japanese department stores to sell coffee makers. The robot was developed by Nestlé and SoftBank’s French branch, Aldebaran. Pepper understands about 80% of conversations and can use the information it picks up to help customers.

People can also walk up to a Robofusion kiosk and order an ice cream. The Robofusion robotics technology was designed and built by Robofusion’s own team. After customers choose what they want using a touchscreen, robotic dispensers dole out the frozen treat, plus the essential toppings — with no human workers in sight.

3. Robots can monitor stock levels for better efficiency

If people see empty spaces on a shelf, they may assume products are sold out without taking the time to check with a store associate. That’s why it’s important for retailers to keep an eye on inventory levels and maintain shelves that are as full as possible.

Robots that keep track of inventory could signal to stock room team members that items are in such high demand they’re running out faster than expected, and people working on the sales floor need to replenish the supply. It’s especially important to consider that approach during extraordinarily busy periods, such as the holiday season.

Amazon, which sold the equivalent of 306 items per second during the holiday shopping season, uses Kiva to retrieve items for customers.

Target conducted a trial of a robot called Tally that checked for instances of products running low. The retail robots were built by Silicon Valley startup Simbe Robotics. Tally also has a scanner that allows it to see if an item is in the wrong place on a shelf or not priced correctly.

Another innovation called the AdvanRobot, developed by Keonn Technologies, scans RFID codes faster than humans can and aids in inventory management. However, it requires an operator using a joystick to move the robot around the desired area and teach it where to go. After that, the AdvanRobot runs autonomously.

So, while the robots Target tested move around by themselves at first, the AdvanRobot needs initial movement input.

4. Retail robots can help shoppers find items

If people can’t locate what they want at one store, they may leave a retailer and go to another. However, Lowe’s partnered with Fellow Robots to create an in-store bot called the LoweBot to assist people with locating items, thereby potentially reducing the chances shoppers might get upset and leave disappointed.

Users can either verbally state which items they want, or they can type them in on an interactive keyboard. The LoweBot then uses technology similar to what helps autonomous cars move along roads to guide shoppers to the correct aisle. People follow the robot to where they should go and see location-based offers on the LoweBot screen.

5. They can make opening hours obsolete

Retail executives have the tough task of figuring out which opening times are most profitable for entire cities or particular store branches. For example, a store that sells office supplies around the clock might do a booming business in a university town where lots of students work on projects or cram for exams through the night.

People often call New York City “the city that never sleeps,” and a Best Buy location in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan used a robot called Chloe to retrieve merchandise for customers 24/7. People use automated kiosks throughout the store to indicate what they want to buy, then Chloe uses a giant arm to get those products from a vending machine and dispense them for customers.

This system lets people get items they deem essential — like replacement phone chargers and media cords — anytime they want. The retail robots, which can distribute 15,000 items, also have built-in security that allows purchasing those in-demand items without increasing the likelihood of theft.

In many locations that sell items people might want to steal, the products stay in locked cases or contain anti-theft tags. Then, workers have to either open the display cases or take the tags off. The Chloe robot makes both those actions unnecessary.

Robots are retail disruptors

Even though many of the case studies mentioned here were for small trials, the diversity of possibilities for using retail robots emphasizes the wealth of opportunities. Automation could help retailers cut costs without sacrificing the quality of service.

Kayla Matthews

About the author:

Kayla Matthews is a technology journalist and robotics writer whose work has appeared on Vice, VentureBeat, RoboticsTomorrow, and Robotiq’s blog. To read more posts from Kayla, visit her blog Productivity Bytes.