Robots in Retail: The Race is on

November 2014
Original Source: The Wall Street Journal 
Image Source: Lowe's Innovation Lab

 

Orchard Supply Hardware in San José, California, recently took delivery of two in store robots which can greet customers, speak to them in English or Spanish, guide them to the correct location for the items they are looking for, and even put them in touch with a store specialist via telepresence if need be.

Salients

  • The Autonomous Retail Service Robot - at the Lowe’s Orchard Supply Hardware store is known as OSHBOT (Orchard Supply Hardware roBOT). OSHBOT weighs in at 38Kg and stands 1.5m tall, and is the fruit of work at Lowe’s Innovation Labs and startup Fellow Robots.

  • Lowe’s Innovation Labs - is an Executive team who thinks how to deploy new technologies in very creative new ways. Through Singularity University’s SU Labs program to foment sustainable business solutions, Lowe’s Innovation Labs teamed up with Silicon Valley startup Fellow Robots to bring the project to its current beta trial level in less than a year. Lowe’s Innovation Labs has not made the cost of the project public.

  • Technology - The technologies involved include 3D Scanning, Autonomous Navigation and collision avoidance, and Natural Language processing.

  • Robot Inventory - The robot receives an up-to-date copy of the store inventory which allows it to guide the customer to the correct shelf location once the product the customer is looking for has been identified. Eventually store associates will use the robot for inventory control operations, and can use the telepresence feature to communicate with associates at other sites.

Insights

  • Autonomous Retail Service Robots - The combination of technologies which make OSHBOT possible: 3D Scanning (to identify products), Autonomous Navigation in indeterminate spaces, and Natural Language processing, come together to offer a product which has been long awaited in retail. The possibility of enhancing the user experience, and reducing staff time dedicated to showing customers where things are, has the potential to boost business and customer loyalty, while reducing costs, leaving the assistant free to perform less routine tasks such as helping the customer with home improvement projects.

  • What about the Customer? -  The human interaction with the autonomous retail service robot has yet to be evaluated. For this reason Lowes is cautious about the roll out, preferring to see how the pilot project goes in San José before committing to more robots. Customers can spend a long time finding what they want in large surface area hardware stores, finding an assistant is often difficult, and there may be a fear of not being understood when the customers first language is not that of the store assistant. A friendly multi-lingual robot may be better equipped to help, and has the advantage of an up to date and complete map of inventory at the store.

  • Internet of Things - Having a robot with a 3D-Scanner, large tactile screen, and Natural Language processing opens up a wealth of possibilities in many stores. The opportunity to automatically record information about customer behaviour is paramount. What are customers looking for? What do they end up buying? How do they navigate round the store? Capturing data at the retail outlet is fundamental to the supply chain, allowing suppliers to see and react to the activities of the final customer almost in real time.

  • Pepper and Savione - Similar experiences are underway - The much publicised Pepper Humanoid Robot, developed by Aldebaran specifically for SoftBank mobile, is being deployed in Softbank offices in Japan, while Nestlé Japan recently announced the purchase of 20 Peppers by the end of the year, with plans to deploy them in 1,000 stores next year. Pepper reads and responds to people's emotions, and is able to explain products and services to the customer, in a simpatico, if robotic, fashion. The Savione robot, developed by the Silicon Valley startup Savioke, was born into tourism rather than retail. Savione acts as a bellboy delivering small items to  guest rooms in the Aloft Hotel in Cupertino, and employs very similar technology to the OSHBOT. According to Steve Cousins, CEO of Savioke, the ROI is partly justifiable from “delighting the customer” with the service provided.

  • Retail Automation to Cut Costs - The retail business is huge, expected to top $4.7 trillion in the US in 2014, for example. Lowes alone has 1,835 stores. Walmart will be keeping a keen eye on developments. Many large retail stores already have automated self-service checkouts, which represent a considerable reduction in staffing requirements, as one assistant can run several checkouts rather than having a dedicated person per checkout. Although automated checkouts may not suit all retailers nor all product families, customer acceptance is generally high, as the time spent queuing is considerably reduced. The proliferation of autonomous retail service robots will further free up staff, but will only happen once the cost of purchase, deployment, and maintenance of the technology allows an acceptable ROI. Within the current climate of robotic development, this will happen very quickly indeed and the likes of Lowe’s Innovation Labs may well reap the rewards of their pioneering work in the not too distant future.