Robots in Retail: Welcome to Automation Nation


This article is brought to you by Retail Technology Review: Robots in Retail: Welcome to Automation Nation.

Robots are very much a part of our life and most probably, already operating at a retail outlet near you, writes Ritukar Vijay, CEO, Ottonomy.

According to a recent survey from RetailWire, approximately 25% of retailers already have in-store robotics in their places of business. Almost half say they “will be involved” with robotics during the next 18 months. This is part of a burgeoning trend in the retail/robotics space, which is robotics applications in customer-facing roles.

This trend of incorporating robots into the customer-facing roles – and into the consumer experience is going to transform retail space as we know it

The Robotics Age Meets the Traditional Retail Customer

According to Deloitte . . . 

--- Retailers are expected to “fast-track” adoption of smart robots in the next year.

--- By 2025, over 150,000 mobile robots are expected to be deployed in brick-and-mortar retail stores.

--- As artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, and 5G/Edge computing converge, robotics will grow larger, “aligning to more customer-facing tasks.”

The following features and tasks are at the top of the list of retailers leveraging robotics in customer-facing roles.

Greetings and Wayfinding

Big brands like Lowes are already using robotics for these customer-oriented services.

Deloitte points out that robots are now being used to greet and aid customers as they enter a retail location. Tasks include directing shoppers to finding store products, engaging with customers in multiple languages, and aiding shoppers in navigating the store to find products on sale or with discounts that the customer may not have known about. 

Shop Online, Pickup In Store 

Shoppers are increasingly comfortable with ordering products online, then going to the physical retail location for product pick-up. It enables the customers to combine the best of both worlds, shop the entire collection from the comfort of home and get it in hand within 2 hours instead of waiting 2-3 days and avoiding shipping fees. Retailers are using robotics-powered parcel systems to order, store and deliver to customers at the store, whenever that customer wants to pick the goods up.

Retailers like Zara use robotics to “optionise” the consumer order-and-pick-up experience, enabling shoppers to pick up products at the store in just a few minutes, intuitively and seamlessly, for both in-store team members and for customers.

Cleaning and maintenance

Shoppers are also employing “robot janitors” to clean up spills and keep the store aisles clean. These are highly “in demand” services that routinely rank high on shopper’s retail store “wish- list.”

Walmart, which uses cloud-connected robot janitors with data analysis features built in. That allows the robots to scan the store, easily move to a spill or damaged aisle, clean the mess, all without interfering with the customer shopping experience.

Three Factors Driving the Evolution of Retail Robotics

The following reasons are majorly influencing retailers to deploy robotics tools to upgrade the customer experience. 

To drive innovation into physical stores

Data shows that e commerce-based retail sales accounted for just over 7% in 2015, and that number crested about 20% in 2021 and is expected to rise to almost 25% in 2025.

In the face of digital commerce headwinds – especially with the speed, ease of use, and customized shopper experience – robotics gives retailers a great way to provide unique and upgraded customer experiences on site, thereby steering tens of millions of shoppers back into malls and into a more customised in-person user experience.

Robotics translates into a big brand investment – and customers are noticing that

In-store robots that interact with customers dates back to 2015, when Mitsukoshi, a mainstay Japanese retailer, rolled out ChihiraAico, the first known robot humanoid. 

Fast forward to 2021, when Tokinomo, an in-store market robotics developer was making a huge impact on store sales via customer interaction. 

Specifically, Tokinomo’s main feature – placing actual robots on store shelves to physically shift products forward and make them more noticeable to customers, with humorous audio messages and customer dialogue added to the mix – was a huge hit with the shopping public. The optics in seeing products moved into a customer’s line of sight are financially rewarding, with Tokinomo reporting an average sales boost of 200% in customer retail locations.

Customers not only remembered the Tokinomo robots, they responded to the customer-facing technology to buy more products and told their friends about the experience. From a branding point of view, marketing outcomes don’t get much better than that. 

Normalising the touchless customer experience

The retail automation experience isn’t fully complete until the customer shops and pays for an item with no human interaction.

That’s where customer-centric robotics are changing the retail game.

With robots able to order, pay for and collect for products with no human assistance, that circle is closed. For example, retailers are finding that customers love the ability to collect their food , drinks and dry goods by using a console-based order code, and then have a robot pick up their groceries and deliver them to the customer at store “pickup towers.” 

When “easy”, “fun” and “effective” are the terms shoppers use to describe your store’s shopping experience, you know your robotics investment is really paying off – and that’s exactly what’s happening with fully-automated customer-facing robots on the job right now.

Never Turning Back

Retail robots have arrived, and they’re here to stay.

Industry decision-makers see how the retail industry has evolved over the past years and how customer-centric robotics are building brands, making money, and vastly improving the customer shopping experience. No question, they like what they see (as do customers).

The retail robotics revolution is just getting started.

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