Much ink has been spilled hypothesizing about the future of the store. One long-term dream of science fiction writers that's now reality is the introduction of robots into our everyday lives, and this without a doubt includes shopping.
Many conversations to this effect are happening in boardrooms and IT departments all over the world. Exactly how they should be fully used is still in discussion, but the value robots can bring to the physical store is now firmly in the minds of retailers, especially when 85 percent of consumers say they prefer to shop in physical stores. Which retailer takes the plunge first is just a matter of time.
What Can Robots Actually Do?
For those responsible for technology innovation in the retail industry, there will be many functions they hope robots will take on. However, it will most likely be robotic stock checkers that will be one of the first real uses we will see. Robots perform extremely well in repetitive, data-driven environments, and few tasks tick these boxes better than stock checking. Robots can review shelves over and over without losing interest, slowing or making mistakes — something humans cannot guarantee. Robots can then match shelves to planograms and issue instructions to human employees to make changes in real time if anything is out of compliance.
However, the robots which will soon be roaming store aisles are just the shiny new face of the robotics and data revolution. The real value comes from what goes on under the hood. The millions of data points robots will collect on how products are moving or staying on shelves, which are linked to positioning, promotions, pricing or branding, is incredibly beneficial to both retailers and brand manufacturers. It's this type of data that will help them to understand how products should be presented to maximize sales.
A senior connection at one of the world’s largest retailers recently told us that he believes there are billions of dollars of value sitting on the shelf of his stores in the form of data. Using robotics is one way to extract that data. Using artificial intelligence (AI) to then turn the data into actionable insights is what will give physical retailers and CPG companies the ammo to increase revenue.
Data analytics and AI is advancing rapidly and is already being used to find insights in existing stock checking data and shelf images. Robotics will allow the data collection to become much more efficient, easier to scale up across stores in multiple locations, and easily compared.
Despite the technology existing and proven to work, retailers still need to identify the best strategies for deployment and look at how to integrate with other data capturing technologies.
Will Robots Save Retail Jobs?
One of the most important aspects of this revolution will be how it affects real people — customers and employees. Understandably, there's worry that robots will automate everything and depersonalize the shopping experience. However, a well-managed, combined (technology and people) execution will likely mean this won’t be the case.
Customers will quickly get used to in-store robots as they did automatic checkout, as long as they're introduced gradually and real people are still on hand to help. Current frustrations around out-of-stock items will also reduce as robots provide real-time data on what needs replenishing, improving the overall store experience.
For employees, although existing jobs in warehouses will undoubtedly be lost, employees will be able to focus on the most important tasks, such as refiling missing products, relocating misplaced items, and correcting pricing and promotion errors.
In our eyes, yes, robots will replace some jobs, but they'll also enhance, save and even create other jobs. With the right strategy in place and a balance of technology and people, stores will become more efficient, customer loyalty will be improved and sales will increase. The store of the future will be different, but it has to be if brick-and-mortar stores are to survive.
Steve Hornyak is the CEO Americas at Trax, a provider of computer vision solutions for retail.