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Robots in the Retail Aisle: Automating Retail Store Management, eCommerce, and Customer Service


Written By: Gargi Sarma 


The retail landscape is undergoing a seismic shift as automation and robotics revolutionize the way businesses operate. From enhancing store management to streamlining eCommerce and customer service, robots are increasingly becoming integral to the retail ecosystem. This article explores the multifaceted roles of robots in retail, the benefits they bring, and the challenges they present.

Figure 1: Global Market Size of the Artificial Intelligence (AI) Robot Market from 2020 to 2030


Retail Robotics Market Size and Growth:


  • The retail robotics market has been rapidly expanding. In 2020, the market size was valued at $7.60 billion. However, projections indicate that it will exceed $69 billion by 2028, growing at an impressive CAGR of 31.61% between 2021 and 2028 (Source: Rinf.tech).

  • Inventory management accounted for the largest market share in 2020 (33.16%), with a market value of $2.5 million. It is projected to grow at the highest CAGR of 37.06% between 2021 and 2028 (Source: Rinf.tech).

  • In 2021, the global delivery robots market was worth approximately $212 million. By 2027, it is expected to reach just under $1 billion (Source: Statista).


Transforming Retail Store Management


Inventory Management

One of the most significant contributions of robots in retail store management is in inventory management. Traditional methods of stock-taking are labor-intensive and prone to human error. Robots equipped with advanced sensors and artificial intelligence can autonomously navigate store aisles, scanning shelves to monitor stock levels, identify misplaced items, and track expiration dates. This real-time data allows retailers to optimize inventory, reduce wastage, and ensure shelves are always stocked, enhancing overall efficiency.


Pricing and Promotion


Robots are revolutionizing pricing and promotion strategies by providing real-time data analytics and automation. These robots can monitor inventory levels, competitor pricing, and consumer behavior to dynamically adjust prices and promotions, ensuring optimal profitability and competitiveness. By automating these processes, retailers can implement precise pricing strategies and personalized promotions, enhancing customer satisfaction and driving sales. 


Store Maintenance


Robots are also taking over routine maintenance tasks. Autonomous cleaning robots ensure that retail environments remain spotless, reducing the burden on human staff. Additionally, robots can handle hazardous materials or heavy lifting tasks, improving workplace safety and freeing up employees to focus on more customer-centric activities.


Figure 2: Retail Store Management - (a) Walmart’s Bossa Nova, (b) Stop & Shop’s Marty, (c) Simbe Tally Robot and (d) Amazon Go


Examples: 


  • Walmart: Deploys Bossa Nova robots to scan shelves and check stock levels, prices, and misplaced items. These robots move up and down the aisles, using cameras and sensors to capture data and send it to store employees for restocking and organizing.

  • Stop & Shop: Uses a robot named Marty to roam the aisles, scanning for spills, debris, and other hazards. Marty also helps with inventory checks.

  • Amazon Go: Stores utilize a "Just Walk Out" technology where customers can pick items and leave the store without stopping at a checkout counter. Cameras, sensors, and computer vision track what items customers take, and their Amazon accounts are automatically charged.

  • Simbe Robotics: Their Tally robot autonomously roams store aisles to audit shelves for out-of-stock items, pricing errors, and product misplacements. This helps ensure shelves are well-stocked and organized, improving store efficiency.


Enhancing eCommerce Operations



Figure 3: E-commerce Operations - (a) Ocado’s pick and pack groceries robots, (b) Alibaba’s automated guided vehicles, (c) Starship Technologies’s delivery robots, (d) Amazon Scout


Order Fulfillment


In the eCommerce sector, robots are streamlining order fulfillment processes. Warehouses and distribution centers increasingly deploy automated systems to pick, pack, and ship products. These robots can work around the clock, increasing throughput and reducing the likelihood of errors. Technologies like Amazon's Kiva robots exemplify how automation can transform logistics, leading to faster delivery times and improved customer satisfaction.


Last-Mile Delivery


The last mile of delivery—the final step of getting products to consumers—has always been a logistical challenge. Autonomous delivery robots and drones are emerging solutions to this problem. Companies like Starship Technologies and Wing are pioneering robotic delivery services, promising faster, more reliable, and cost-effective delivery options. This innovation not only enhances customer experience but also reduces traffic congestion and carbon emissions.


Examples: 


  • Ocado: A UK-based online grocery retailer, utilizes highly automated warehouses where robots pick and pack groceries. Their robotic system can manage thousands of orders simultaneously, increasing efficiency and reducing errors.

  • Alibaba: In their "smart warehouses," robots called AGVs (Automated Guided Vehicles) transport goods around the warehouse, significantly speeding up the picking and packing process.

  • Starship Technologies: Offers autonomous delivery robots that can navigate sidewalks to deliver packages and groceries to customers. Retailers like Tesco and Coop in the UK have used Starship robots for last-mile delivery.

  • Amazon Scout: An autonomous delivery device designed to safely get packages to customers using pedestrian sidewalks.


Revolutionizing Customer Service

Figure 4: Customer Service - (a) SoftBank Robotics' Pepper, (b) McDonals’s self-service kiosks, (c) LoweBot


In-Store Assistance


Robots are becoming valuable assistants on the retail floor. Service robots, such as SoftBank's Pepper, are designed to interact with customers, providing information, answering questions, and even processing transactions. These robots use natural language processing and machine learning to understand and respond to customer inquiries, offering a personalized shopping experience. They can also guide customers to specific products, recommend items, and provide entertainment, creating a unique and engaging shopping atmosphere.


Virtual Customer Service


Online retail is also benefitting from robotic customer service. Chatbots and virtual assistants powered by AI handle a significant portion of customer interactions on eCommerce platforms. These digital agents can manage inquiries, process returns, and offer personalized recommendations based on customer data. By providing 24/7 support, they enhance customer satisfaction and loyalty while reducing the workload on human customer service teams.


Examples: 


  • SoftBank Robotics' Pepper: Deployed in stores like Sephora, Pepper greets customers, answers questions, and provides product information. It can engage customers through conversation and help them find what they're looking for.

  • Lowe's: Uses a robot named LoweBot to help customers find products within the store. LoweBot can understand and respond to voice inquiries, guide customers to the right aisles, and provide information about product availability.

  • H&M: Implements chatbot assistants on their website and app to help customers with product inquiries, order tracking, and personalized recommendations.

  • Nordstrom: Uses a virtual stylist service where AI-powered chatbots and human stylists work together to provide fashion advice and personalized shopping experiences to online customers.

  • McDonald's: Introduced self-service kiosks in many locations, allowing customers to place orders and make payments without interacting with a cashier. These kiosks can also upsell by suggesting additional items based on the customer's order.


Benefits and Challenges


Figure 5: Projected Impact of Automation by Core Merchandising activity (Source: McKinsey & Company)


Benefits


Efficiency and Accuracy: Robots perform repetitive tasks with high precision, reducing errors and increasing operational efficiency.

  • Cost Savings: Automation can lead to significant labor cost reductions and lower operational expenses.

  • Enhanced Customer Experience: Robots can provide faster, more accurate service, enhancing the overall customer experience.

  • Data Collection: Robots can gather vast amounts of data, providing valuable insights into customer behavior and operational efficiency.


Challenges


Initial Investment: The cost of implementing robotic systems can be high, posing a barrier for smaller retailers.

  • Technical Issues: Robots can face technical glitches and malfunctions, potentially disrupting operations.

  • Job Displacement: The rise of automation raises concerns about job displacement for workers performing routine tasks.

  • Customer Acceptance: Some customers may be hesitant to interact with robots, preferring human interaction.


The Future of Robots in Retail


As technology continues to advance, the role of robots in retail is set to expand. Innovations in AI, machine learning, and robotics will drive further enhancements in efficiency and customer service. Future developments may include more sophisticated in-store robots capable of performing complex tasks, fully autonomous delivery systems, and even greater integration of AI in customer interactions.


Retailers must strike a balance between leveraging automation to improve operations and maintaining a human touch to meet customer expectations. By doing so, they can create a seamless and enjoyable shopping experience that combines the best of both worlds.

In conclusion, robots are transforming the retail industry by automating store management, enhancing eCommerce operations, and revolutionizing customer service. While challenges remain, the benefits of incorporating robots into retail strategies are compelling. As technology evolves, the retail sector will continue to innovate, offering new opportunities for growth and improvement.

 

RapidPricer offers an innovative solution for retail automation. Their platform leverages artificial intelligence (AI) and deep learning to automate pricing and promotions in real time within a retail environment. Read More on AI-Driven Automated Consumption in Retail.


About RapidPricer


RapidPricer helps automate pricing and promotions for retailers. The company has capabilities in retail pricing, artificial intelligence, and deep learning to compute merchandising actions for real-time execution in a retail environment.


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