Robots are ready for retail. Is retail ready for robots?

Discussion
Jan 13, 2015
David Dorf

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is an excerpt from a current article from Commerce Anywhere Blog.

I thought it fitting to kick the New Year off with a futuristic topic and what’s more futuristic than robots? Lowe’s hit the news back in October with their OSHbots, a robot deployed in their Orchard Supply Hardware store in San Jose, CA. As a sales assistant, the robot provides customers with product and inventory information using voice response, much like Siri. It navigates the store using collision avoidance technologies like its 3D camera.

Similarly, an Aloft hotel in Cupertino, CA deployed a robot that navigates the hotel and delivers items to rooms when requested by guests. Need extra towels or perhaps another pillow? SaviOne, your robotic bellhop, will deliver it to your door. At Carnegie Mellon, inventory counts in the bookstore are handed by AndyVision, an autonomous robot that scans shelves looking for out-of-stocks.

[Image: Aloft Hotel's robot butler]

At around $150,000 per robot, these solutions are unlikely to be cost-effective yet, but as the technology matures and demand increases costs are bound to come down. A mix of humans and robots in stores doesn’t seem so impossible now, as voice and vision technology continues to evolve. But we’re still in the novelty phase with mainstream adoption several years off. In the meantime, look for small, innovative examples popping up in California and Japan

What’s the likelihood that robots will become commonplace in retail operations over the next decade? Do you see store-level roles for robots in addition to areas such as warehouse operations?

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23 Comments on "Robots are ready for retail. Is retail ready for robots?"


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Bob Phibbs
Guest
5 years 6 months ago

How does a robot multitask like a human being helping multiple users at a time? How much do we gain from making a store into a warehouse with robots—where even employees are treated like nothing more than order-fulfillment devices? While several retailers appear to think this is the future—and it may be for a certain segment like convenience stores—other than as a novelty interest for PR, I can’t see this as a solution to lower foot traffic and price resistance from increasingly less-engaged shoppers.

Chris Petersen, PhD.
Guest
5 years 6 months ago

The question in the headline needs to be changed to, “Robots are ready for retail. Are consumers ready for robots?”

Right now, robots are clearly a novelty and will garner some initial attention. But do they serve a real purpose for consumers? Wouldn’t consumers really rather have a great app on their phone that provides product location, navigation in-store, and up-to-date stock availability?

As much as retailers have searched for digital and technological solutions, shoppers are people who still prefer to interact with people.

Max Goldberg
Guest
5 years 6 months ago

Until the price comes down robots will be exotic items that few retailers can afford. Once prices are significantly reduced look for an invasion of robots at retail. The only other concern would be reliability.

Kelly Tackett
Guest
5 years 6 months ago

I don’t know about commonplace, but definitely more prevalent. Clearly for warehouse operations, perhaps less so for the store floor. If we look at robots as a more mobile and personable version of the in-store kiosk, then certainly robots can help with customer assistance. Ease of training and improved accuracy of information are definite pluses. Whether it offsets the creep factor and the social component of shopping in brick-and-mortar is another question.

Ian Percy
Guest
5 years 6 months ago

I say the faster we can eliminate face-to-face contact with customers the better off we’ll all be. Damn them all, I say. And then one day perhaps we’ll see a totally mechanized retail operation, itself devoid of all managers and sales people. Ah, what a day that will be: Evolution as nature intended.

Adrian Weidmann
Guest
5 years 6 months ago

Robotics will continue to be integrated into warehouse operations not unlike the Best Buy Express kiosks made by Zoom Systems found in airports around the country. Warehouses are already using robots but further proliferation of this technology will continue. Robotics will definitely be used at retail but humanoid robots will continue to be a novelty over the next decade. Retailers on the other hand should use the savings gained in the efficiencies of using robots to invest in developing their human customer service and interface at the store. Your staff is your best brand ambassador and as such you need to develop and value this “channel” over all others. The human sensory experience is the only in-store differentiator that will never be duplicated online.

Mike B
Guest
Mike B
5 years 6 months ago

Have moving robots if you must but don’t put them in a customer-facing position, you foolish companies. You will offend many. Kid brothers may break or vandalize the very expensive robots. Hotels, keep the robot in the back room to do laundry or towels. Keep the robot in the back room to pick inventory, Lowe’s (if you have a back room).

John Fermann
Guest
John Fermann
5 years 6 months ago

Robots and robotic systems are already in place in warehouse pick-and-pack operations including Amazon. They have proven to improve the efficiency and offer a positive ROI. Perhaps they can be used in backrooms and operations like Pea Pod but for now i do not see that on the retail floor.

How about a look to the future where your shopping list is sent to the store and it is picked and packed by robots and ready for your pick up? Not too far off actually.

Shep Hyken
Guest
5 years 6 months ago

Robots in retail stores and hotels … It can work. However, a retailer must be careful not to lose the human connection. And the robot, at least at this point, can’t up-sell or cross-sell in the retail store. But let’s not fight it. It’s going to happen. So we have to live through the growth and maturity of the technology.

Gordon Arnold
Guest
5 years 6 months ago
Robotics has proven highly effective in addressing issues like accuracy, monotony, fatigue and reliability. As intelligence and programmable scope continue to increase many expect the time for robots to “take over” to be very near. The question is what is holding the costs so high? Production costs for units like we see here today would significantly drop into the realm of affordability if they came from modern manufacturing plants instead of prototype shops. What is holding down demand is product awareness and familiarity. Putting this technology in place requires an implementation and return on investment plan for this to be successful. Current technologies and range of capabilities are drastically increased in short amounts of time making the leading technologies of today old-fashioned and antiquated in just a few years. In retail environments old-fashioned is a bad thing as seen through the eyes of most consumers, sometimes to the point of spreading derogatory commentary via social media. Keeping up-to-date may reduce the retailers’ ability to recover investment dollars before payback is complete. This causes the delays… Read more »
Colin Peacock
Guest
5 years 6 months ago

With Marshall Fisher’s distinction that a store is both a factory and a theater, it would seem an opportunity to leverage robots for factory-type roles such as receiving, replenishment, etc. It would not take too much of one’s imagination to believe that it won’t be long before robots with image recognition cameras could take over gap and shelf compliance checks before the store opens and after it closes. This should free up time to focus associates on the theater side of the store.

Lee Kent
Guest
5 years 6 months ago

We have a ways to go before it will be common place to have robots interacting with customers. Kiosks? Yes. Robots? No.

On the other hand, if the price is right and there are rote jobs that can speed up the process? By all means.

… And that’s my two cents.

W. Frank Dell II
Guest
5 years 6 months ago

Automation or robot use has been growing in consumer products warehouses for years. Today Automatic Storage Automatic Retrieval (ASAR) is used for pallet put away and replenishment. Years ago there was the Ordermatic which picked cases for supermarket chains. It failed as the pick lanes were welded and thus could not be adjusted for the changes in products. Case and item picking will become robotic within 10 years for some retailers. Store use will be limited to bringing backroom stock to the floor for stocking.

Mike B
Guest
Mike B
5 years 6 months ago

Sure, kiosks are okay. Robotics like a meat wrapping and labeling machine, or a pill counter in pharmacy, are okay. But to have the robot be facing the customer for sales help or service of bringing supplies in a hotel? Major fail.

Jonathan Marek
Guest
5 years 6 months ago

Finally a robot butler! Haven’t we all been waiting all our whole lives for this?

More seriously, this is entirely a question of cost. At some cost, this will be a no-brainer even if all it can do is go-fer tasks as an assistant to a human being. Repetitive motion-based jobs are less common in retail and hospitality than in manufacturing, but of course there are some. But the price is going to have to come down an awful lot from $150k per robot.

J. Peter Deeb
Guest
5 years 6 months ago

All one has to do is look at the manufacturing community to see the potential in robots. The sophistication will continue to develop and like all technology costs will come down. Will it happen in the next decade? Absolutely, but due to cost and human constraints, maybe slower than it potentially can.

Vahe Katros
Guest
Vahe Katros
5 years 6 months ago

Retail Robot 2017:

“Danger Danger Mrs. Robinson: Those aren’t your colors!”

Retail Robot 2020 (after the singularity):

“I believe you’ve expressed dissatisfaction with the spartan nature of your wardrobe, shall we make an attempt at embellishment?”

Doug Garnett
Guest
Doug Garnett
5 years 6 months ago

Robots thrive doing repetitive tasks in an organized environment. The farther from that environment, the less effective they are.

So warehouse-like operations might make complete sense—although the chaos on a retail floor may hinder their effectiveness at things like inventory. Just think of how misplaced items appear on shelves—complete potential chaos, which is a robot’s weakness.

Customer interface? One more store technology where the hassle and pain for the consumer far outweighs the potential benefit. So we avoid them as consumers.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest
5 years 6 months ago

Poor San Jose! The center of the tech world—or so it thinks—and yet the stylebooks still demand the “CA” clarification.

Where were we?…Oh yes: robots. Right now they’re expensive, but have a high novelty = advertising value. As time goes on, the former will decline, but so will the latter. Which will win the race? We’ll have to see, but at this point I’m still skeptical. (And waiting for the more important development: robots blogging on RW…or are there some already?)

Mark Price
Guest
Mark Price
5 years 6 months ago

Robots will become more commonplace in the back rooms of retailers over the next 10 years, assisting with inventory tracking, picking and shipping. I do not think that consumers will be ready to be assisted by a robot for some time….

Ed Dunn
Guest
5 years 6 months ago

There are quadcopter drones capable of following customers around a store reminding them of the current specials and deals that would be more effective than a ground-based robot interfering with foot traffic.

Robert DiPietro
Guest
5 years 6 months ago

Robots in retail—already there in Distribution Centers with pick by wire, etc. Soon to be in the retail store. Do you need a human to stock shelves or could a robot do it?

More likely is the robot/human combo that BEAM demonstrated at CES, an IPAD on a Segway with a human on the other side of the teleconference. This could allow for centralized customer service when consumers are buying a complex solution like a connected home appliance.

Joan Treistman
Guest
5 years 6 months ago

The one subject not yet addressed in response to this question has to do with privacy. What’s to say the robots record their interaction and/or your name and account number are filed in relation to the transaction…even the request for inventory information. If the retailer follows up with an email or call to remind the shopper of what was requested and not purchased or what goes well with the purchase robots will have a lot of explaining to do. And customers may be miffed.

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