COMMENTARY

Rolling out the robots: The next tech transformation

June 8, 2017

Photo: iStock.com

By Steve Hornyak, CEO Americas, Trax

Reality is finally catching up with science fiction. We have passed the point of proving robotic technology can work in a retail environment. If you are not already testing robots in your store and utilizing computer vision capabilities, you are already late. In fact, for those big box retailers with Amazon on their minds, robots will become the norm in their stores in as little as two years, saving millions in the process.

Optimistic visions are great, but the industry needs to start thinking about how this will actually work if they are to benefit from cost efficiencies. What paybacks will robots deliver to justify their investment, and what are the practicalities of rolling them out?

So, what can robots do? The main benefit of robots is often described as automating repetitive tasks. Stock checking is the most obvious repetitive task in retail. Few people enjoy checking endless stock against plans, and the monotonously of it means humans are prone to mistakes. Robots are perfectly suited to such tasks, they can check over and over without losing concentration, while remembering every single planogram, matching it to the shelf in fractions of seconds, and producing actionable reports.

However, the data they collect in this process is even more valuable. It doesn't take much to imagine that the millions of data points on how products are moving or staying on shelves, linked to positioning, promotions, pricing or branding, might be incredibly useful to both retailers and CPGs. A senior connection at one of the world's largest retailers recently told us that he believes there is billions of dollars of value sitting on the shelf of his stores in the form of data. Using robotics is one way to extract that data and increase revenue streams.

There are of course many practicalities to this new robotic world, and they will evolve quickly. Right now, there is the question of how customers will respond to robots. In five years robots may be so normal this ceases to be any more of a question than how they responded to automatic checkouts.

In these early stages of retail robotics, we have identified a few initial challenges that need consideration:

  • Schedule robots: Start small so that change is not too sudden. A full store sweep between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. will check everything is optimally set up for the day. Sweeps ahead of rush hour pick times will ensure maximum availability and compliance during the busiest hours of the store.
  • Robots need to be part of a team: Robots may not be the best data collection tool for every part of the store. For example, static cameras can collect data more regularly in high turnover areas. Understanding the best technology to unearth the most actionable insight is essential in maximizing its potential.
  • Robots + AI = better insight: Understand the relationship of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI).  Robots may be the visible poster child for the future, but while they can do the legwork, AI is the brain behind it. Robots survey their environment and collect the data to make decisions, and increasingly they will be able to implement the resulting insights. However, it's AI that will provide the critical in-between point that turns data into actionable insights.
  • People still matter: Robots will do repetitive tasks better than humans, but they will never replace human instinct and customer service. Don't think of robots as a way to replace people, but a way to make humans jobs more valuable. Could the insights robots help to gather be used to help retail staff help customers more effectively? Could we try the suggested product displays so that robots can gather data and assess how effective different strategies are? Some roll outs of robotics could deliver so much value, that more people are needed to action their suggestions.

By combing advanced technologies and people in this way both retailers and manufacturers will finally be able to see the whole truth about brand, category and store performance.

As the industry navigates its way through the robotic revolution, new challenges will emerge but its benefit far outweighs the risk. How the industry takes shape will depend on many variables but what's certain is that our industry must act quickly if our stores are to survive and thrive in the next tech transformation.


Topics: Automated Retail / Vending, Customer Experience, Customer Service, Retail - Analytics, Technology

Companies: Trax Image Recognition


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