With the ability to manage inventory in real-time, take payment for items almost anywhere inside a store and even prepare tasty drinks, retail robots could be the next best way to keep customers returning to brick and mortar stores.
Home robots were a big hit at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES), but chances are that the first robot encounter for most people will be inside a store. Much like other industries, retail is being shaped by robots and algorithms. If things go as planned, these high-tech innovations could be the key to bringing customers back into physical stores.
Recent developments in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics have the potential to free up retail staff, increase business efficiency and improve the shopping experience by leveraging massive amounts of real-time data.
In Seattle, Amazon is changing the physical shopping experience by experimenting with smart shelving and checkout-free shopping at an Amazon Go grocery store located not too far from the Space Needle. Shoppers scan the Amazon Go app on their smartphone and then shop as usual, except they can leave the store without stopping to checkout and their Amazon account will be charged later.
Through automation, retailers can keep shelves stocked and tidy. At the National Retail Federation (NRF) show earlier this year, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich demonstrated Tally, the world’s first robotic autonomous shelf auditing and analytics solution for retail from Simbe Robotics.
Powered by an Intel NUC with a Core i7 inside and equipped with RealSense cameras, Tally can autonomously navigate a store during business hours to monitor stock levels, ensuring that products are always available, correctly displayed and accurately priced.
Robots are now greeting and serving customers at many local stores in the San Francisco Bay Area. At Cafe X, a robo-barista serves customers with greater speed (the average drink preparation takes less than a minute).
Shoppers who visit a Lowe’s Home Improvement store might be greeted by NAVii robotic staff, aka LoweBots, made by Fellow Robots. The bots can help customers with simple questions as well as scan inventory and capture real-time data.
“We designed the NAVii robot to make the shopping experience easier for consumers — simplifying the process of finding the product you’re looking for — while also managing the back-end and keeping shelf inventory up-to-date for the retailer,” said Marco Mascorro, CEO of Fellow Robots.
Robots are even creating on-demand clothing for customers. At the 2017 NRF event, Intel partnered with Shima Seiki to showcase a machine capable of on-demand, in-store 3D knitting. The Mach2XS 153 knitting machine can whip up a custom garment in less than an hour.
Robots are also making deliveries to customers easier. Through DoorDash, an on-demand restaurant delivery service, robots take to the streets of Silicon Valley to deliver food. In the Cambridge area of England, Amazon Prime Air drones successfully completed trial deliveries. Drone delivery in the U.S. may happen later after the Federal Aviation Administration sets rules for drone flight over populated areas.
In the future, it’s not so far-fetched to imagine shopping malls patrolled by robo-cops, shopping carts that autonomously follow customers through the store and bots like the Piaggio Gita that carry shopping bags to a shopper’s home.
If these innovations in retail robots are any indication, it’s likely robots will play a bigger role making in-store shopping experiences easier and more engaging.