Is retailing being swept up in a robotic revolution or is the whole thing just so much sci-fi pie-in-the-sky?
As fond as I am of alliteration, I’m on the side of the true believers. For nearly a century, mankind has dabbled with the idea of personal robots and robotic workers taking over humanity’s mundane day-to-day tasks, leaving us free to expand our intellect. This clearly hasn’t happened yet—just look at election year politics! Or, more to the point, the lack of meaningful experiences in the retail sector.
My personal fascination with robotics goes back to the 1956 science fiction classic Forbidden Planet. Aside from a scantily clad actress by the name of Anne Francis—the real attraction was Robby the Robot, the electronic cook, butler, chauffer, protector and all-around gofer. On a more cerebral level there was the self-aware HAL, in the seminal 1968 film 2001, A Space Odyssey, an early entry into artificial intelligence. And we all know how that one ended.
Retail may not have to battle the rise of the machines, but are we approaching what the late futurist Alvin Toffler called Future Shock, a super-industrial society at the point that technology surpasses our capability to use it?
Clearly, retail’s present and future raison d’être is not just to sell products, but also to provide an engaging experience—particularly when the lure of online shopping is so appealing and convenient.
There’s no doubt that robotics will eventually be a new disruptor and play a key role in developing that personalized experience in store and behind the scenes. A lot of people are already making that bet. Last year, nearly $600 million in venture capital was invested in robot technology (and the AI/machine learning systems that support it), according to some estimates. I’m willing to bet the amount goes even higher given the extensive research going on in Japan and Europe as well as the US.
In fact, Fung Business Intelligence Center estimates that a record 14,232 robots valued at $840 million were ordered from North American robotics companies just in the first half of 2015 most of them for industrial, medical and logistical purposes but clearly a precursor of things to come.
Bots at Your Service
Some of what’s happening is little more than eye candy. But behind the electronic fluff serious business is taking place that could herald a new era in customer service.
Let’s take a look at a few of them:
- Orchard Supply Hardware, Best Buy and Lowe’s are using robots to help people find items and, in some cases, take them to the aisle where the item is located. Lowe’s OSHbot can speak and understand English and Spanish.
- Savioke, a Silicon Valley company has developed a robot of the same name that delivers items to guests at the Aloft Hotel in Cupertino, CA.
- Budgee is a rolling shopping basket with a 50-pound capacity that follows people around and is controlled by a transmitter worn by the shopper.
- SoftBank, which originally introduced its humanoid robot Pepper as a store greeter, is taking steps toward artificial intelligence. Pepper is being placed at food stores in France to suggest recipes and wines and assesses customer satisfaction.
We Are Connected
Pushing the envelope further we have the potential of the connected IoT store with digital window displays, smart mirrors using facial recognition software to gauge customer emotions and digital dressing rooms that merge online and physical stores where customers can tap a display to have merchandise sent to them, change the lighting and even order a glass of Champagne—a feature of designer Rebecca Minkoff’s stores in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco powered by eBay.
A variation of this is Hointer, which is testing robotics that bring items to and from dressing rooms at its concept store in Seattle. Shoppers download the Hointer app to their Android or iPhones, scan an item’s QR code and have merchandise brought to them, sent back or paid for on the spot to bypass the checkout line. That alone would be a major plus for most shoppers.
But as much as everyone loves the idea of customer facing robotics, it is simply the tip of a massive technological iceberg. Their true value may be in logistics, the basic block and tackling of retail, which has been utilized so efficiently by Amazon’s fulfillment centers.
- Simbe Robotics, San Francisco, developed Tally, a robot programmed to walk the aisles and take stock levels in one-third the time needed by humans, enabling quick and efficient restocking. The next step may be sending the data directly to DCs for ordering and replenishment. Tally was designed for supermarkets but projects are underway in other retail channels.
- Meanwhile, RF Spot in Los Altos, Ca., has an in-store sensing robot that has been used to track and maintain apparel inventory at Tesco stores in the UK.
- Hudson’s Bay Company, which operates Saks and Lord & Taylor opened a 450,000-square-foot robotic fulfillment center in Pottsville, Pa in July, a giant leap in Internet distribution technology.
Inevitably, these conversations lead to the subject of labor. As anyone in heavy industry like automotive will tell you—albeit in whispered tones—robotics and automation have been paradigm-shifting developments. But could it lead to a similar industrial revolution in retail?
A research report entitled “Robot Revolution” from the Bank of America Merrill Lynch, found that up to half of retail jobs could be replaced in 20 years by robots or computerization, including salespeople and cashiers.
The issue yet to be addressed, and a highly sensitive one at that, is whether robotics will just destroy jobs, result in downsizing or create the opportunity for other higher paying, skilled positions to oversee and maintain this dystopian future filled with robotic workers. It’s difficult to envision the social impact either way at this point.
But I wonder, would Robby join the union?