Where can robots assist in retail’s COVID-19 efforts?

Discussion
Photo: Brain Corp
May 13, 2020
Tom Ryan

Robots have been hailed for their effectiveness as contagion-proof workers in hospitals and are being seen as a potential solution for retail’s new COVID-19-related challenges.

Among the areas where robots may help retailers:

Shopping: Enjoy the Store in Redding, CA is testing what it calls “telemarketing,” whereby an online browser logs onto a retailer’s website to take control of a robot inside the store, KRCTV reports. The browser then wheels the robot around the shop to view merchandise and can ask the staff questions.

Security: In some overseas markets, robots are screening customers for mask-wearing and body temperature before they can go inside stores as well as monitoring social distancing compliance in public areas. Drones and robots are reminding people to socially distance. The police department in Westport, CT last month tested a “pandemic drone” that can monitor people’s temperatures from 190 feet away and detect sneezing, coughing and heart and breathing rates.

Sanitation: Autonomous floor-scrubbing robots roaming floors can augment cleansing efforts and gauge which aisles are most heavily trafficked and need extra attention. On CBS News’ “60 Minutes” on Sunday, Amazon.com unveiled a UV light-emitting robot prototype designed to kill viruses and germs in its warehouses and Whole Foods stores.

Delivery: At Broad Branch Market in Washington, D.C., about half of its deliveries a day to homes are handled by robots that look like picnic coolers. At one Best Buy store, a robotic cart was spotted supporting curbside delivery. Drones, sidewalk robots and self-driving cars all supporting delivery remain in test mode at numerous retailers, but COVID-19 is expected to be a catalyst for greater investments and adoption.

Scanning store shelves for stock-outs and automating pick and pack and other functions at warehouses are also touted as potential robotic benefits.

Beyond safety, retailers are looking to robotics for possible cost savings, although they face a potential backlash from replacing human workers.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: In what areas will robots likely offer the biggest benefit in helping retailers navigate the coronavirus pandemic? What proposed solutions seem far-fetched?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"First comes sanitation, sanitation, sanitation. A well-trained robot can do a better job and it puts fewer workers at risk."
"I would venture a guess that Walmart and Ahold/Delhaize are already looking to retrofit those hundreds of robots deployed already to now scan shelves with UV lights..."
"These are all nice ideas, but the whole concept needs a reality check. Robots are not hand sanitizer stations. "

Join the Discussion!

16 Comments on "Where can robots assist in retail’s COVID-19 efforts?"


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Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

Robots were made for the COVID-19 pandemic. As noted in the article, there are many ways that robots can be deployed to support retailing, and I think that in-store sanitation is a big one. While cleaning rarely gets the glory, deploying robots to disinfect the store in a fast, effective and easy way would have a significant impact on sparing frontline workers the back breaking work of keeping the store environment safe and clean.

Kathleen Fischer
BrainTrust

I agree, now is the time to evaluate the potential of robots. Utilizing robots to clean/sanitize also takes away some of the risks the frontline workers would face from potential infection.

Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

Will these robots pick up each can of soup, each avocado, or each package of hamburger and disinfect all sides and the shelf space where they sat, or are you thinking of just a PR play that stores claim they were robotically sanitized?

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

In addition to the ways robots have already been used, adding the ability to have a robot keep stores clean and sanitized on a frequent and regular basis is a good use for robots. This will help create consumer trust and confidence.

Robots have more capabilities than are being used. This is the perfect time to introduce these capabilities to the public. Existing – yet underused – technology is getting a boost. We would eventually get there, but the coronavirus pandemic is pushing the use of these technologies to be used sooner (as in now) than later.

Richard Hernandez
BrainTrust

You know, I would love to see robots manage customers, for instance informing them that they are going the wrong way when shopping marked one-way aisles in stores. I follow the signs on the floor, but I see a lot of people that don’t look down, and all of the sudden there are a lot of people in an aisle where there probably should not be so many.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

The answer is “all of the above.” But first comes sanitation, sanitation, sanitation.

A well-trained robot can do a better job and it puts fewer workers at risk. It also provides more continuity in the sanitation process.

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

When revenues slide or completely disappear, the traditional areas that management cut are customer service and maintenance. Robots should be focused initially on those areas that humans get pulled from.

Lisa Goller
BrainTrust

Retailers are investing in robots to enhance reliability, efficiency and safety. For instance:

  • Walmart will add robots to 40 percent of its stores this year to scan store shelves to minimize out-of-stocks;
  • Amazon and Kroger warehouses use robots to boost fulfillment efficiency and accuracy;
  • Kroger has tested autonomous vehicles for contactless grocery delivery, which can mitigate health risks in the last-mile.

Robots will replace many frontline workers along the supply chain. Yet robot adoption fits into the macro trend of automating traditionally manual retail processes to enhance the customer experience with speed, agility and convenience.

Brent Biddulph
BrainTrust

I would venture a guess that Walmart and Ahold/Delhaize are already looking to retrofit those hundreds of robots deployed already to now scan shelves with UV lights to help with sanitization.

This certainly has added a new use case to further justify those wise investments, and gives them both a leg-up over the competition with having robots already deployed in-store.

James Tenser
BrainTrust

Those had better be some powerful UV bulbs if they are going to be effective. Far better to add misting systems to floor-cleaning ‘bots. (There are suitable, safe disinfectants available.) Either way, this must be performed while there are no humans in proximity.

Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

These are all nice ideas, but the whole concept needs a reality check. Robots are not hand sanitizer stations. A retailer doesn’t just order up a bunch of robots and send them to stores to use. There is a big planning effort and considerations around oft-forgotten things such as deployment testing, safety testing, consumer education, use case validation, and much more — including revisions to all of those things once robots are in the wild.

The Enjoy the Store example as it was portrayed makes for a nice TV spot, but is not reality. One robot with one associate in one small location is not indicative of, say, a supermarket implementing teleshopping.

Amazon/Whole Foods still can’t get their s_ _ _ straight with human delivery and look at the resources there. This is a bunch of technology concepts looking for a real-world scenario that is functionally viable — let alone financially viable — and not making a convincing case. And … how many robots are sitting in warehouses today waiting for deployment in meaningful numbers?

Peter Charness
BrainTrust

Well, robots can boldly go where humans shouldn’t, in terms of sanitation etc. I’m just wondering if the brave new world of retail two years from now will look like a good science fiction movie, or a dystopian one. Perhaps we should give equal time to the role of people in the post COVID world of retail, and what are all the new and interesting areas that will open up.

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

Implementing robotics is part of the operating model modernization efforts necessary to safely reopen retail, restaurants and service-oriented businesses. Companies will be very challenged to reopen their operations under the current services model, especially when consumers are very focused on health, safety, hygiene, as well as shopping in sanitary locations.

Until the longer-term operating model strategies are implemented, it will be essential for companies to leverage robotics, automation, and AI into their day to day business. Empowering and ensuring that the front line associates are protected and safe should be the first priority. Robotics is not the ultimate solution but could be leveraged to enhance, and make the mundane repeatable operations a bit safer, and sanitary.

Kathy Kimple
BrainTrust

I agree that sanitation seems like the best place to begin. I look forward to the results of tests in which robots offer assistance to virtual shoppers.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, “sanitation” won the race … I think we’re all of that certain age where we’ve been conditioned by decades of seeing the “Scrubbing Bubbles” commercials.

Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust

Robots, along with AI/ML and automation in general, are going to get much more attention from retailers in the coming months. Just in the news was a newly developed Amazon robot using specialized UV lights for sanitation in stores and warehouses. The UV tech is still being tested for effectiveness against the coronavirus, but it’s yet another example of innovation being applied.

There is huge potential in robots for sanitation purposes in retail, although I don’t believe they can 100% replace humans in all cases. Beyond that, there were existing use cases for more mundane tasks around shelf counts and temperature checks in cooler cases where robots made sense. The use cases will continue to add up quickly!

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Braintrust
"First comes sanitation, sanitation, sanitation. A well-trained robot can do a better job and it puts fewer workers at risk."
"I would venture a guess that Walmart and Ahold/Delhaize are already looking to retrofit those hundreds of robots deployed already to now scan shelves with UV lights..."
"These are all nice ideas, but the whole concept needs a reality check. Robots are not hand sanitizer stations. "

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