How Retailers Can Use Robots to Improve Customer Experience

As the Internet of Things (IoT) becomes more prevalent throughout the retail industry, some of the more sophisticated and intelligent “things” retailers are connecting to the Internet are robots. While robots have already been used behind the scenes in warehouses and distribution centers for pick, pack and ship duties, they have only recently started making their way to the “front lines” of retail, roaming store floors and interacting with customers.  Leading retailers are testing robots in a variety of use cases throughout the retail supply chain, and the robots are proving their worth with the ability to reduce labor costs while improving visibility, service levels and customer experience.  Here are some examples.

Taking Stock to Improve the Customer Experience
Robots like Tally, which is currently being tested at some Target stores, can roam store floors to survey shelf condition, take stock of inventory and note planogram compliance. With the ability to check thousands of SKUs faster and more accurately than human workers, robots can have a significant impact on reducing revenue loss and the customer frustration caused by out-of-stocks or misplaced items.

Additionally, as they travel the floor checking shelf conditions they can also capture real-time data on shopper behaviors. Using computer vision, video analytics and other technologies, robots can capture data on how shoppers move through the store, where they are congregating and what products they are purchasing. They can even examine shoppers’ facial expressions for insights into consumer sentiment and their decision making processes. When combined with analytics, this data yields powerful, real-time insights and provides retailers the opportunity to send an associate to help the shopper, or send a personalized offer to the shopper’s mobile phone, or take other action to give the shopper exactly what they need in that moment.
Personal Shopping Valet
Lowes is using the LoweBot at select stores to help customers find items within the vast home improvement store. Shoppers can tell the robot what they’re looking for – a specific type of screw, for example – and have the robot guide them to its exact location on the shelf. Walmart is testing the use of robotic shopping carts that not only help shoppers find items on their list, but also eliminate the need to push a heavy cart through the store. This can be especially helpful for customers with disabilities.

The charming, humanoid robot Pepper greets customers in stores across Japan, Europe and now in Silicon Valley. Pepper can read a variety of customers’ emotions, respond to their inquiries and make recommendations based on its interactions with them.

While some people have expressed concern over the prospect of robots replacing human workers, retailers actually gain the greatest benefits by using robots to augment and complement the human workforce. Robots can offload the more tedious and repetitive tasks, thereby freeing up staff to focus their efforts on more skilled work, such as “clienteling” and building loyal relationships with customers.

To join the robotics revolution, retailers will need to have an IT architecture that supports pervasive, robust wireless connectivity, data collection and aggregation, flexible cloud computing, edge analytics, mobility, and more. They will also benefit from precision indoor location technology, which helps a robot navigate and pinpoint targeted customers, shelves, or merchandise.

Nearly every step of the retail supply chain can benefit from the robotics revolution through improved operational efficiency, workforce productivity and customer service. Retailers that want to use robots to improve their stores should examine their businesses and identify areas where robots can be used to improve shelf conditions and planogram compliance, help customers find what they’re looking for, or even take over the more tedious tasks so human associates are free to engage with customers. As consumers continue to become ever-more connected to the IoT, and as artificial intelligence and natural language processing continue to improve, shoppers will feel increasingly comfortable with robots in their retail experiences.

-Shaun Kirby, Director, Industries Product Group at Cisco