Robotics and industrial automation are transforming business practices across a broad range of industries. Dubbed as the fourth industrial revolution, the technologies are expected to bring multifaceted benefits. From enhancing product quality to improving efficiency and customer experience.
The most recent development is being witnessed in the retail sector. Robots fed with sophisticated artificial intelligence have taken over a few jobs that are better handled than humans. For example, Amazon owns nearly 100,000 robots in the distribution centres at the global level. Lately, Walmart announced to deploy 1.500 autonomous floor-cleaning and shelf-cleaning robots in its stores.
In 2018, the Retail Robotics Market was estimated at USD 19.4 billion. And this is forecasted to touch 144.93 billion by 2026, growing at a CAGR of 28.96 % from 2019 to 2026. The penetration is happening step by step, yet interestingly!
Easing The Job For Both Employees & Customers
When Christmas is upon us, supermarkets are flooded with customers. Not just shops but even in warehouses, the staff has to keep up with the pace at which orders come in. Getting over tasks like packing, shipping and restocking is time-consuming and demands huge manpower.
Therefore, to make such tasks way more efficient, the UK’s largest online supermarket Ocado has launched robots. These intelligent machines have the capacity to put 50 grocery orders in baskets in just 5 minutes. While the same task achieved by human workers take up to two hours.
During Christmas, a fleet of 1000 robots is the only solution to manage large orders at Ocado. Robots know where can you find a specific product by navigating its way through the warehouse that is divided into sections based on a grid system and storage temperatures.
But this doesn’t mean they are entirely taking over the human workforce in the warehouse. The robots spot the product, grab it and send it for delivery to humans who pack into the delivery boxes. This is not the first time Ocado has introduced automation to its online shopping market. The company has been using automated trolleys, conveyor belt-based systems and are continually investing in upgrading their software.
As far as the cost benefits are concerned, in the long-term, the robots will cut down on employee expenses. As per Dan Kara, Research Director at Robotics at ABI Research, the robots will soon prove their omnipresence.
The Biggest Retail Challenge Handled By Robots
The majority of the brick and mortar retail shops around the globe face the issue of ‘out of stock’ and ‘out of the sale.’ Bossa Nova Robotics, a Pennsylvania-based company revealed the fact in a survey. As per findings, 87% of corporate retail professionals said that incorrect inventories impact the loss of revenue more than theft. 73% said that inaccurate inventory prediction is a “constant issue”. Retailers either have too much supply or too little to satisfy customer demand. 65% reported that the inability to track inventory through the supply chain ends in potential loss of sales.
At the same time, 74% of respondents said the introducing robots in stores would enhance accuracy and increase profits. While 76% said that these machines would boost employee productivity.
Bossa Nova Robotics has designed robots that can perform repetitive tasks. They can accumulate data, move down the shelves and work out the products that are out of stock or misplaced. After gathering the data they can feed it into the store operations. This leads to a more powerful omnichannel experience.
Moreover, the robots can also collect data that eliminates the confusion when stores believe that it has products that are in stock. But in actual, they are misplaced or overlooked.
Today, in the age of online shopping, it is crucial for brick and mortar retailers to embrace innovative high-tech solutions. When people shop online, they expect to spot the products they want and at the time they want. By launching robots in the stores, they can fulfill customer demand – in real-time.
Robots are now designed to operate safely around customers. They are equipped with three-dimensional cameras and sensors to sense the store traffic. This is critical as this helps them to stop or move out of the way. They signal a “green” or “red” light that shows whether they are stationary or moving around.
An important feature of the retail robot is that they do not talk. This eliminates customers’ enticement to stop and talk to them – or interrupt their job.
Robots As Waiters
Robots serving at the restaurant table is slowly transforming into a trend from quite some time now. Tony, Eka and Pepper have actually moved beyond serving customers. Confused? We are talking about three robots serving at the Niska ice-cream parlour in Australia. The shop is situated at Federation Square in Victoria’s capital city.
As per Niska, all three have meaningful conversations from the time a customer enters the parlour. Tony, in particular, has two arms and a digital screen as the face. The robot is designed by global technology developer ABB. The company developed this robot as a part of the YuMI range of robots, launched in 2015. Their design is intended to work in coordination with humans to perform exact and repetitious tasks.
Niska is further planning to expand into other areas of retail with such robots. As revealed by CEO and co-founder Kate Orlova. Niska claims to be the first robotic store in the Australian retail industry.
Recently, US-based NEXT Franchise Brands, announced that it would introduce Reis & Irvy’s – a robotic frozen yoghurt brand in Australia. The brand offers a booth with a robotic machine that serves customers with their choice of frozen yoghurt. There are options to choose a flavour or add toppings.
Assessing The Capacity Of Robots In Retail Shopping
For the first time in September 2019, Milton Keynes hosted the European Robotics League – Smart Cities Robotics Challenge. Again, it was the first time when international researchers in robotics and AI met at the Centre MK shopping mall. The challenge was to demonstrate state-of-the-art robotics relating to smart cities and smart shopping. 10 teams from 5 different countries participated in the challenge. The challenges include:
- Verbal interaction of robots with humans to reflect social behaviour. To be as realistic as possible.
- The capacity to achieve manipulation tasks
- Their role in emergency tasks.
The Smart Cities Robotics Challenge was categorised into five episodes. The episodes were designed by the collaboration of external experts from various research and industry sectors. These are as follows.
Coffee Shop Orders – The robot must help customers in a coffee shop. It must take the orders and bring the items to and from the customer tables. Here the main assessment was made on people’s perception. Other functionalities taken into account were speech, navigation, synthesis and recognition.
Elevator Assistant – The robot must take people inside the elevator to their required floor. It should interact with MK: DataHub to know which floor it must reach to achieve the task.
Shopping – The robot at a store in the mall must take customer orders through a tablet. Then it should collect the requested item and place them in a box. The box on a tray must be placed where the customer can pick it up.
Door Operator – Here robots must identify a door, reach it and open it completely within a specified tolerance from 90°
Emergency Task – The aerial robot must fly autonomously as fast as possible in an emergency situation. And it should deliver the first-aid kit to a customer.
There is so much going around in the brick and mortar retail industry with robots. Don’t you think it will lure customers more than online shopping – in the future?