The Rise of Robots in Retail

The retail industry is on the precipice of a robotics revolution. While leading-edge retailers like Amazon have been using robots, their role has largely remained experimental or behind the scenes, primarily used in warehouses and fulfillment centers to perform pick, pack and ship duties. That is about to change. 

Retailers are increasingly testing use cases for robots in a variety of roles from internal operations to customer-facing service. As they become more capable and cost effective, we will increasingly see robots having significant impact on every aspect of the retail value chain. 

As one of the more intelligent “things” that can be connected to the Internet of Things (IoT), robots are helping retailers realize the digitization potential of IoT by reducing labor costs, improving operational efficiency and even delivering delightful customer experiences. Here are several areas where we expect to see the rise of robots in the near future:

Warehouses and Distribution Centers

Robots have already made a tremendous impact by performing pick, pack and ship tasks in warehouses and distribution centers. More than two years ago Amazon began use its KIVA robot to perform these duties across all its fulfillment centers and today it’s estimated the robots save Amazon $22 million at EACH facility. Walmart plans to use drones in its warehouses within the next few months to check inventory in a fraction of the time it takes humans today. 

Where retailers like Amazon and Walmart lead the way, others will surely follow. More retailers are taking an intermediate step by equipping human warehouse workers with smart glasses and augmented reality applications to provide context and workflow assistance, but there is still tremendous opportunity throughout the retail industry to automate more warehouse activities through increased use of robots. 

Surveying Store Conditions

Since robots have proved their worth behind the scenes, an increasing number of retailers are moving them to the front of the shop, allowing robots to roam the store floor to capture real-time information on shelf conditions, take stock of inventory and note planogram compliance and effectiveness. 

Robots like Tally can travel a store’s aisles for up to 12 hours on a single charge, auditing shelves and checking up to 20,000 SKUs with greater than 96 percent accuracy – a task that retail staff might traditionally spend 25 to 40 hours per week performing manually, with less accuracy. Retailers can greatly reduce revenue loss and operational problems caused by out-of-stocks, overstocks and other inventory discrepancies by using robots to continuously survey shelf conditions. As an added benefit, the real-time data collected by these roaming robots can be combined with analytics to gain insight into shopper behavior, optimize planograms and much more. 

Customer Service

Robots are even being employed in more customer-facing, service-oriented roles. Brick-and-mortar retailers realize that to better compete with e-commerce giants, they need to improve customer experience and convenience in store – and robots can help.  

Walmart is testing the use of robotic shopping carts that help shoppers find items on their list and eliminate the need to push heavy carts around the store. This can be especially helpful for customers with disabilities. And Lowe’s announced the roll-out of the LoweBot in several stores. Shoppers can tell these types of customer service robots what they are looking for, or even hold an item up to the robots’ 3D sensing cameras and have the robot guide them to the item’s exact location on the shelf. 

For retailers like Lowes, these types of robots could eliminate the frustration of trying to find a particular type of screw, for example, within the vast home improvement store. Customer service robots can even perform double duty, scanning shelf inventory and sending real-time data to store associates while they guide customers through the aisles.

While it may be years before robots can provide high-touch, “clienteling” customer experiences, they can help retailers optimize workforce productivity by offloading many of the more tedious or repetitive tasks from human workers. This can dramatically lower the cost of retail service and improve the customer experience by freeing up human associates to focus their efforts on the more skilled customer service experiences, such as building personalized relationships and loyalty with customers. 

Robotics technology is maturing rapidly and breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, computer vision and natural language processing (which makes robots both more useful and more personable) are accelerating adoption. At the same time government agencies and standards bodies are working on standards and regulations to make robots safer and more interoperable with other IoT technologies. And, as consumers continue to become more connected to the IoT and increasingly leverage technology in their personal lives, we’ll see growing consumer acceptance of robots. With these factors converging, I expect we’ll see robots becoming much more mainstream in retail within the next few years. 

Robotics Revolution

To start riding the wave of the robotics revolution, retailers will first need a digital-ready foundation and an IT architecture in place that is capable of supporting pervasive, robust wireless connectivity, data collection and aggregation, flexible cloud computing, edge analytics, mobility, and more. This foundation enables retailers to gain the insights and contextual understanding necessary to deliver hyper-relevant and personalized customer experiences through robotics. 

The cloud, especially, is critical for helping retailers leverage their robots’ artificial intelligence to the greatest extent. With cloud robotics, when one robot learns a new skill it can share its newfound knowledge to the cloud so other robots can acquire the same skill without having to be specifically programmed or having to learn independently through trial and error. 

Lastly, retailers who plan to let robots roam the store floor will likely find that they need more advanced precision indoor location technology. This helps a robot navigate and know precisely what aisle it’s on or what products it’s near while avoiding bumping into customers or displays – especially in environments where planograms, modular displays and signage are constantly changing. 

Nearly every aspect of retail can benefit from robotics. Retailers should examine their businesses to identify the use cases where robots can help provide a competitive advantage by streamlining operational efficiency, optimizing workforce productivity or improving the customer experience. 

Whether it is automating fulfillment processes, improving shelf conditions and inventory accuracy, helping customers find what they’re looking for, or another scenario, robots are on the rise and will play an increasingly important role in retail.

Shaun Kirby is director, industries product group, at Cisco, a global technology leader.