Will Robots Succeed or Self-Destruct in the Battle for Retail?
July 25, 2019      
Georges F Mirza

We see it almost daily on social media and other outlets; news from robotic companies with a promise to deploy or expand at a retailer. What is truth and what is fiction?

The truth is, several of these companies have been at it for over four years building their shelf insight solution. Then new ones joined the field, solving a less complicated retail problem, but all trying to build up to the Holy Grail solution of shelf insights. From what I can see today one company, perhaps two, have a path to success. No, it is not the obvious ones that will bring the solution to bear, and I will not be divulging any specific company progress in this article. In the arena are Bossa Nova RoboticsCosyFellow RoboticsSimbe Robotics, and newcomers to the U.S. market, like Badger/JabilBrain Corp and Zippedi among others.

Essential functions

If you read my Robots in Retail article, you know the questions that need to be answered. Can robots accurately, repeatedly, and autonomously function in retail stores processing collected data and solve real business problems? And at what cost? Those are the real issues to solve in a first deployment at scale. We are not there just yet.

Simbe grocery shelf empty

Products that aren’t on shelves plague retailers in their inventory tracking. Image: Simbe Robotics

Almost all the players continue to trim the cost of their robots, with a few of the newcomers being more successful and forcing others to jump into the trenches and engage in turf defending at any price. Processing and product recognition continue to be an area of opportunity for everyone to increase accuracy levels, expand, and differentiate capabilities.

All are on the front line engaging to win the business of the retail giants like WalmartKrogerThe Home DepotTescoWalgreens etc., and rightfully so. This decision can prove to be the path to dominance or entanglement into a never-ending list of requirements and trials. Some gained penetration focusing on the non-giants, this might be the winning strategy.

Return on investment

There is another element that we did not discuss yet. It involves the route to take in order to achieve results. What will it take and how healthy is the company to sustain itself long term and provide a return on the money they promised their investors? Unfortunately, there has been a focus on the hardware pizzazz and a lack of key pedigree crucial to complete the solution. Several disruptors joined the game, with a fraction of the investment and notoriety of others, that were able to progress and bypass companies that established themselves as the main players to win market share. These disruptors had the maturity to prioritize scale and insights early on and understood the retail challenges well.

My counsel for retailers that understand the need to bring robotic automation to center store; is to look again before you commit, you will be surprised. These new companies have impressed me and proven my theory that over time you can build it quicker and at reduced cost. Technology is moving at such a rapid pace, faster than retailers are used to, that adapting has not been easy for them and robot capabilities are not maturing fast enough.

A vision for the future

The new entries focused on scalability and insight from day one. As a result, they built a system to sustain current challenges with the ability to grow more rapidly because they prioritized these objectives early.

The other variable is not just what you can do today, it’s what are you prepared to do for tomorrow. You must understand the rollout of robotics in retail at the ground level. Do you have that vision, desire, and ability?

Established solution providers, from hardware to insights, like JDANCRNielsenZebra Technologies and others are wise to understand the impact of robots at retail to their business model. They would be well advised to monitor and ensure readiness to participate. Make no mistake, this is a major paradigm shift to all in the retail ecosystem.

Time to weigh the pros and cons of each of the players as they struggle to move beyond the hardware and navigation capabilities. Equipped with in-depth industry knowledge and experience, I am seeking the ‘secret sauce’ if you will and in my opinion, only two companies possess it. This will be the topic of my next article.

The next year will be decisive, and the field will start to narrow. The outcome of the Walmart battleground will reveal the hallelujah moment for some, and the missing of the boat for others.

What should you do? Your homework, study the pros and cons of each, understand where they are today and their vision for tomorrow and then decide which solution is here to stay and is right for you… for the time being that is.

About the author: Georges F 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 LinkedInTwitter or email.