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Are Retail Robots the Future?

Retail Robot

A retail robot, OSHbot, working in Orchard Supply Hardware.

Ask consumers about their customer service experiences in bricks and mortar stores and you’ll undoubtedly hear mixed reviews about the staff. Sometimes customer service associates are not educated enough to provide product recommendations. Other times, they may ignore customers altogether, or be too enthusiastic in making a sale and neglect the shopping experience. Yet, consumers continue to go to bricks and mortar stores rather than just clicking to buy online.

With advances in robotic technology, it raises the question, ‘Do we need humans for in-store services?’

Where Does Human Service Fall Down?

If we look at the typical retail store, consumer complaints tend to centre around three specific areas:

1. In-stock position

Keeping product on shelf so that it is available in the correct location when consumers are ready to purchase is a challenge for any retailer. Relying on the night crew or customer service people to re-stock shelves when inventory gets low is challenging, and the challenge increases with the number of SKUs offered.

2. Product knowledge

Providing up to date product knowledge is a differentiator between good and poor merchants. It is possible to equip customer service representatives with the tools to find accurate product information; however, training representatives to provide the information on a timely basis and in a format that meets the consumer’s needs is another matter.

3. Speed of service

Speed of service for in-store support and/or during the checkout process is another area of challenge. A scan of any of the consumer surveys printed at the end of your shopping receipts will almost always reveal a question about the speed and friendliness of the person who checked you out. A merchant’s focus on this is an indication that they recognize the importance of meeting consumer expectations and the frequency of when they’re not.

How Robots Make Retail Operations More Efficient

Let’s look at a real life example. Since 2012, Carnegie Mellon University has had a robot that can take inventory and generate a real-time interactive map of the store. By 2013, robots were taking inventory and then restocking store shelves overnight. Using RFID tags and bar codes, stocking shelves is easy work for robots. Also consider the OSHBot, which was introduced by Orchard Supply Hardware store in 2014, and has the ability to direct customers to products and quickly supply them with expertise from human employees.

Since these retail robots solve some of the challenges outlined above, we can expect to see inventory management robots in widespread use across merchants in the near future.

It is common today to see self-service lanes where consumers can improve the speed of checkout with technology. The introduction of the mobile wallet and the integration of technology through the store will allow consumers build their shopping cart while they travel the store and checkout faster at the end of their trip.

Many grocery stores offer handheld scanners that consumers can use throughout their shopping trip to track items as they are loaded into their basket. Hointer has taken this to the world of fashion by developing technology that allows consumers to build a cart of items they want to try on. After try-on, consumers return unwanted product at the dressing room and their cart is automatically updated. This allows them to arrive at the self checkout with an updated cart of items to purchase.

Do We Need Humans?

While robots are excellent for reducing customer pain points and easing the path to purchase, shopping is still a social experience. Technology has been described as “a new way to be alone while we are together.” However, there are consumer touchpoints that are still best served through human interaction.

Today, many merchants use digital technology to fill in the gaps in customer service representatives’ knowledge or allow customers to get product information and customer reviews themselves. Tablets, smartphones, and other electronic devices are now commonplace in retail stores.

Even in the Hointer video, in a store that is desolate and seems to echo with the lack of conversation, a stylist is used to help with choices and provide the finishing touch on style. While the mix and matching of items can be driven by an algorithm, consumers are not yet ready to completely abandon personal attention.

There is a role for robots and technology in retail, particularly for inventory management and as tools to complement human service, however, they have not been able to replace excellent customer service itself.


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