February 10, 2017      

Last December, Amazon.com Inc. stunned the world. It announced Amazon Go, a radical concept for the online giant — physical stores enabled by robots in retail.

Amazon Go is a fully automated grocery store. No humans are involved. The customer walks in, picks up what he or she wants and walks out. An app, cameras, and artificial intelligence do the work of a cashier.

Even if you are not a retailer, you should pay attention to Amazon Go because your market could be next.

Although Amazon is pushing the envelope, it is not alone in using robotics in retail.

Business Takeaways:

  • Just as automation has affected factories and warehouses, so too will robotics and AI change retail and other customer-facing operations.
  • Major retailers have already begun testing robots, but small and midsize enterprises (SMEs) shouldn’t let themselves fall behind in using robots for greater efficiency and personalized customer service.
  • In combination with big data generated by the Internet of Things, robotics and AI could help retailers be more responsive in the era of e-commerce.

Target Corp. is using a robot from Simbe Robotics to count items on shelves or scan for incorrect prices. The Lowe’s Cos. has worked with Fellow Robots on LoweBot, a service robot that will greet customers and bring them the aisles where the items they’re looking for are located.

Do not be surprised if you end up talking to an AI-based chatbot the next time you order a drink from Starbucks.

Looking at these and other examples tell us two things. First, robotics is coming fast to retail operations.

Second, it appears that mostly large, well-known retail firms are using robotics.

What if you’re a corner “Mom & Pop” shop? Or, what if you’re a well-established grocer in your local community but not known beyond it? What can you do with robotics in your business?

Answers can be found in last month’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas or the National Retail Federation’s show in New York. Irrespective of your location, size, and type, you now have myriad options for applying hardware and software robotics to your business.

Here are some possibilities for robots in retail.

Reading emotions

How many times have you wished if you could know what a customer was thinking when he or she entered your store?

One robot in retail is helping to sell chicken in Beijing.

KFC’s robot analyzes customer demographics and makes individualized recommendations.

KFC is using a robot in Beijing that comes with an AI-based facial recognition technology from Baidu Inc. The robot looks at the faces of people entering the restaurant and makes recommendations based on their age, gender, or facial expressions.

If that is not you, perhaps you could try EmoVu, software from Eyeris Technologies Inc. that uses deep learning and in-store cameras to track shopper engagement. Depending on you want to know and what you want to do with the information, EmoVu can help you take immediate action while the customer is in the store.

ShelfPoint is a product from Cloverleaf that analyzes the emotional reactions of customers as they are looking at items displayed in a store. The software can tell you how the customer is feeling or responding to the items.

EmoVu uses in-store cameras. Cloverleaf uses interactive shelves.

Robots in retail lead to deeper engagement

With whom do customers spend the most time when they’re in a shop? The answer is obvious but could be surprising.

It is the shopping cart or shopping basket. If so, why not use the cart to engage more deeply with the customer?

Another robot in retail is Five Elements Robotics' shopping cart.

Five Elements Robotics is working with Wal-Mart on automated shopping carts.

Five Elements Robotics is working with Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to provide automated shopping carts. The idea is that a shopper will scan the shopping list, and the cart will automatically take the shopper to the items in the store. Once done, the shopper can pay for the items on the cart itself, and then the cart will follow the shopper to the car.

If this sounds too complicated or outside your budget, other robots in retail can help develop a meaningful bond with patrons.

Most coffee shops offer free Wi-Fi. You can, too, but that does not tell you anything about the customer who has walked in.

The Spruce for Men barbershop and clothier in Coloroado is offering Spruce Bot, an AI-driven router. In addition to Wi-Fi, the bot works with the customer. The moment the customer returns and connects to the router, Spruce Bot and the proprietor will know.

If the customer has created a profile like providing his birthday, the shop has an opportunity offer customized service. A patron could even walk out of Spruce with an item, and the bot would bill him later.

More on Robots in Retail and Service:

AI provides real-time execution

If you are in e-commerce, does your website connect with customers and boost sales? How much time and resources do you invest in figuring which section of the site or what specific area of a webpage is working? Or, what small changes, like changing the color of “buy” button, could increase sales?

Until recently, companies spent money and time on A/B testing and hiring social media experts. Now, artificial intelligence is executing in real time and changing the results.

An Italian lingerie brand, Cosabella, is using AI to see what is working and what is not on its website. It can then take appropriate actions such as changing the size of an image, offering a different product description, or making aesthetic adjustments. Cosabella found that by letting AI handle those tasks, sales increased by 35 percent.

If you want a North Face jacket, you will be talking to IBM Watson.

North Face has “hired” Watson as its in-store personal shopper, a sales rep that asks customers a bunch of questions and then makes contextual recommendations.

There is another reason for using AI: Your customer wants it.

According to J. Walter Thompson, an advertising firm, 70 percent of U.S.-based millennials want retailers to use AI to curate products for them.

From self-checkout, smart shelves, and service robots in retail to interactive mirrors, virtual reality, and predictive analytics, the tools and technologies are here and ready.

Are you?