Robots in Retail: Move Beyond Hype Into Commercialization
Since they first started showing up on annual trends lists in 2015, industry watchers have predicted that robots would be all the rage in retail. Fast-forward a few years and it’s clear the pace is picking up, but there’s still no consensus about the ultimate role of robots in stores. Are they best suited for customer-facing or in-store operations? Should they be used to improve checkout processes or help customers locate hard-to-find products?
Current trials and proof-of-concept projects, which are underway at a variety of retailers nationwide, will go a long way to determining the most valuable use cases for these purpose-built solutions. Still, a hurdle remains before retailers can realize how advanced technologies and automation can solve their persistent problems with customer service while increasing operational efficiencies and reducing costs.
A Balanced, Pragmatic Approach
It’s easy to become overwhelmed by, or suspicious of, the constant hype surrounding the use of robots. Many of the early players are approaching retail from a theoretical or academic research perspective. A more balanced, pragmatic approach is better suited for retailers as they are typically practical, cost-conscious decision makers rooted in rubber-meets-the-road realities.
Take the grocery retail sector, for example. This group of problem solvers are down-to-earth realists, not easily swayed by bleeding-edge technology unless they see how it can solve real-world business problems. Grocers go to great lengths to improve customer experiences, yet are reluctant to make significant investments in automation unless there’s rapid return on investment.
Additionally, this group tends to be cautious, perhaps because previous attempts to integrate various retail technologies and corporate platforms have fallen short of promised benefits. Many complain that the information they need to improve operations continues to elude them, so they make decisions as best they can with gaps in data. Often, they’re forced to rely on gut instincts, supplier handshakes and “good enough” answers because they don’t have granular details about what’s really taking place at the store level.
The Value of Visibility
Grocers typically have accepted that up to 8 percent of their inventory isn’t properly placed or priced, which translates into lost revenue. To date, they’ve accepted this fact begrudgingly because they haven’t been able to get better data. But what if a roving robot could do the work of a small army by continuously scanning shelves for important updates on product price integrity, inventory levels, planogram compliance and more? What would the contribution to the bottom line look like if product availability or price integrity climbed a mere percentage point? How would it change the competitive game if retailers had better visibility across their supply chain to understand which products flew off shelves as well as which ones lingered?
The opportunity to tap into previously unavailable or unattainable information is one of the most compelling reasons to consider a retail automation solution containing robotics, artificial intelligence and IoT. Today, there's no data feed from a grocery store that reports accurately all the products on its shelves and verifies if those products are priced and displayed properly so management can ensure operations run at top efficiency.
That’s why vendors and store managers often can be found taking pictures of displays, manually completing checkbox lists, and filling out endless spreadsheets — all of which only provide a partial view of the data needed to operate at the highest levels of productivity and profitability. The best way to sell robots to retailers is to explain how they can tap into all the data that couldn’t be accessed before — and then prove it.
Roving Robots to the Rescue
For the pragmatic realist, inventory robots equipped with navigation systems, cameras and sensors will find a welcome spot in stores for collecting and sharing many types of granular data. Armed with accurate, insight-driven data about multiple different aspects of store operations, retailers then will be able not only to boost efficiency levels but go beyond any existing cost-avoidance efforts to focus on new and creative solutions for generating revenue.
To get started, retailers should assemble a task force of like-minded pragmatists and corporate business strategists to identify business goals and project timelines. Reaching a consensus on measurable metrics is key. For instance, achieving a 1 percent increase in product availability and price integrity along with a 20 percent boost in planogram compliance might be sufficient for starters, especially if results yield significant revenue gains. Also, seeking alignment across the organization is critical, so projects driven by operations should include stakeholders from finance and IT. Innovation-led initiatives need support from operations and finance to provide balanced perspectives.
Most robotics implementations start as proofs-of-concept (POC) or pilot projects, followed by regional trials and then corporate-wide rollouts. It’s advisable to start with a highly targeted POC driven by a clear set of objectives and desired outcomes. Once those objectives are met and stakeholders are aligned, it’s usually a fast step to fuller involvement and rapid adoption.
While initial tasks may focus on solving specific operational issues, robotics promise an expanding suite of service- and process-based solutions that can help retailers improve stores’ overall operations and financial performance. The time is now to move beyond hype to consider how robots in retail environments can be a powerful catalyst for financial health and competitive gain.
Tim Rowland is CEO of Badger Technologies, a product division of Jabil. He is responsible for driving sales, development, delivery and service for the organization’s suite of retail automation solutions.
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Tim Rowland is CEO of Badger Technologies, a product division of Jabil. He is responsible for driving sales, development, delivery and service for the organization’s suite of retail automation solutions. Rowland brings more than 38 years of engineering, manufacturing test, sales and strategy experience to the position. Previously, Rowland served in various engineering roles at Lexmark, where he drove the development of innovative retail automation offerings. He also spent a decade at IBM in a variety of manufacturing test engineering, development and research roles. Rowland has a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from Georgia Tech.