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How Robotics Will Change the Retail Industry

  • 13 November 2017
  • Shawn Farner

When you think about robotics in the world of work, you can probably name a number of examples where they’ve already made their presence felt. Take the automotive industry, for example, where robotics are used to assemble cars in factories. Or think about defense! We’ve all seen those large Boston Scientific robots that can jump over blocks and somehow regain their balance when they’re hit. Robotics, as technology advances, are being used in more and more places, and the retail sector is no exception.

We’ve put together some of the ways robotics are starting to impact the retail industry, whether in ways that won’t entirely surprise you, as well as in situations you may find unique and interesting.

Customer Service

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Imagine one less retail associate roaming the floor, waiting to potentially help someone, and then imagine if a robot could take that person’s place. It’s really a win-win for your business: you can put that associate to work doing a task more suited for a human, and the robot can provide basic answers to the questions customers have, and can even help customers find the item they’re looking for. This is what robotics has the potential to do for retail locations, and in some places (Lowes, for example, with its Lowebot), they’re already doing it. And even better: if an item is too high to reach, a robot can get it for your customer in seconds! No problem.

Inventory & Stocking

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If you’ve ever worked a low-level retail job, you’ve probably done some tasks related to inventory or helped stock products on shelves. It’s not the most exciting job in the world, and on top of that, there are far more useful tasks that a human employee can be taking care of at a retail store. That’s where robotics comes in. Stores like Target are already employing robotics to take count of in-store inventory (using its Tally bot) and stock shelves. And even more: the Tally bot can identify when a certain product is in the wrong place, which is something that might fly under the radar of a human who has other tasks on their plate.

Customer Interaction

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Customers aren’t big fans of lines, and they’re really not all that happy when they have to wait to get answers to their questions. Do you know what might cheer them up? A robot! Seriously. Softbank in Japan, for example, is using a bot called Pepper in its retail locations to interact with customers and have chats, as well as provide the information customers might be looking for. Because robots are still novel in these settings, customers seem to find them entertaining and are far less likely to be unhappy when a cute little robot rolls up to them, says hello, and offers to help and make their day a little brighter.

Warehouse Labor

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Working in a warehouse can be incredibly monotonous work. Not only that, devoting humans to an enclosed space where they’re asked to find products and move things from one place to another? It seems like something a robot can do, freeing human workers and their brains to work on more complex tasks. And, sure enough, robotics is well on the way to invading this space. Robot pickers are making their way into warehouses, zipping around from aisle to aisle to locate the products customers have ordered. Best Buy’s Chloe robot is already making headway in this space, and other retailers are almost certainly going to jump on board in the near future.

Deliveries

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Decades ago, it would seem completely preposterous that other delivery methods would come along and provide alternatives to UPS, FedEx, and the good old United States Postal Service. Fast forward to present day and we’ve already seen a 60 Minutes special about the delivery drone technology Amazon is working on. Domino’s, the well-known pizza chain, is also working on its own delivery solution: DRU. Robotics is on the path toward making autonomous deliveries to our homes, reducing the need for large trucks to go from neighborhood to neighborhood, and enabling consumers to get the products they order far more quickly. There are other benefits too, including reduced carbon emissions if fewer delivery trucks wind up being used in the future.

Reduced Injuries and Liability

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When manual labor is involved in a job, there are bound to be injuries. You may not think there’s a high risk for injury when it comes to some retail jobs, such as store associates, but think of some of the other tasks we’ve mentioned above. Stocking. Warehouse labor. Delivery. Those are all instances where an employee could be handling something potentially heavy and could be asked to do so in a repetitive manner. People who work to stock products or work in warehouse settings are also asked to climb ladders sometimes, which present dangers of their own. Robotics can help keep human laborers away from higher-risk activities, which both keep these employees safer and also reduces the amount of liability a company has to deal with when it comes to on-the-job injuries. And robotics can offer some benefits thanks to not placing humans in harm’s way, too: think warehouse space, for example, which can be lessened (narrower aisles) when robots are doing all the labor.

As you can see, robotics are already starting to make inroads into many retail companies, and there’s a ton of potential for their use as technology evolves. Think about Amazon’s drones and how they’ll be used to make short-distance deliveries to that retailer’s customers. What if long-distance freight drones become possible in the future, able to transport products from one entirely robot-run warehouse to the next? What if robot-powered rail lines crisscross the country and provide us a way to move heavier items from San Francisco to New York, all without any human intervention? The future is happening all around us, and if the past decade or two are any indication, it’s going to happen a lot more quickly in the years to come.

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