Robots and Retail in the US

Retail store Lowe’s has a robot at the door. The LoweBot greets customers and locates their intended purchases in the cavernous environs of this American DIY giant. Using speech recognition to engage, it can be programmed to understand as many as twenty-five languages.

According to Business Insider, a full 93 per cent of retail sales were still taking place in physical stores in the US as of last year. But beyond their use to delight and entertain, the robotics investments with more impact are found in the supply chain and logistics.

Driving efficiencies

Five years ago Amazon paid $770 million for robot manufacturer Kiva Solutions, and its robots now drive forklifts and retrieve goods for delivery. Amazon relies on their efficiency in packaging and shipping orders in order to cut their already-impressive delivery times and operating costs  by up to 20 per cent, according to the National Retail Federation. The NRF also cites a report by the Pew Research Centre that says 65 per cent of Americans expect robots and computers will be doing a lot of what humans are doing now before the next half century.

Target’s recent trial saw Tally the robot motor through the aisles taking inventory. The next step for big-box environments? Development is focused on the ability of our robot friends to make deliveries to customers in-store.

Meanwhile, Google has filed a patent for a truck capable of making individual deliveries. So far, however, there have been challenges with speed, and one prototype was involved in a slow-moving accident, but it is mostly a matter of working out the kinks at this stage.

Structural changes to employment

Experts predict that nearly half of retail jobs are at risk, especially sales roles, cashiers and other low-paying retail positions. McKinsey believes that 40 per cent of US employees spend half their time engaged in tasks that could simply be automated.

Improving the experience

Much of the thinking behind in-store robotics is that if you can diminish the aspects of shopping that no one likes – the stocking, the folding, the asking or answering of the same question over and over again – both customers and sales associates are freed up for more high-value pursuits.

At the NRF’s expo in January 2017, more robots appeared to be on display than ever before, including SoftBank’s Pepper. She welcomes shoppers, recognises their age and gender, displays the store information they ask for, and prints out a coupon before sending them on their way or introducing an associate for more involved help.

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