Discover three ways to implement robotics in your retail business today. As technology advances and automation becomes more intelligent, so does the opportunity for higher profitability. For retailers, the next evolution of digital disruption comes in the form of robotics. ResearchandMarkets.com projects that the global robotics market will grow to $12.36B by 2023—and retail is particularly poised to take advantage of this market.
The physical manifestation of automation, robotics are machines programmed to complete repetitive tasks—a common need for retailers. Assembling new product, moving existing product off stockroom and warehouse shelves, tracking inventory, speeding delivery— robotics creates innumerable possibilities for retailers to increase efficiency and cut costs. Allowing these machines to handle repetitive tasks decreases the margin of error in the creation, stocking, and delivery of merchandise.
And that’s not all. Robotics today goes beyond simple task completion. Integrated with artificial intelligence (AI) and advanced analytics, robotics provides greater insights to companies about the business at large.
Smart robotics automates processes to save time, gather better intel, and deliver product faster.
AI makes robots inherently more productive. Instead of completing tasks in silos, robots connect with one another as well as back-end systems to correct erroneous behaviors, learn from successes, and increase efficiency as a collective. Intelligent robotics also allows work to be done overnight or after hours with limited need for human supervision.
With players like Amazon dominating the market, all retailers must contend with higher customer expectations, shortening the time it takes for products to reach customers. Robotics can be integrated throughout both logistics and the supply chain—from welcoming customers, to locating and delivering products, to observing and analyzing customer movements across stores. And implementing robotics provides efficiency at scale, with little impact on operational overhead.
Robotics has become relevant at every stage in the buyer’s journey, and the number and types of use cases are steadily growing.
Some brick-and-mortar retailers are increasing customer engagement and facilitating the sales process by using robot shopping assistants. These robotic guides help customers to find products and navigate through larger stores, even providing on-the-spot checkout options. Other retailers utilize robots to get a better visual on stocking issues, sending robots to the stock room to replenish diminished products to feed inventory and purchasing analytics, allowing for a quicker re-order response time. In the United States,
Lowe’s is an example of a retailer that has invested in both. Lowe’s deployed its first sales floor robots, “LoweBots,” in 2016 to test ways of improving customer assistance and stocking efforts. Increasing in functionality in the years since, LoweBots are well integrated with both the Lowe’s human sales team and the company’s back-end systems. On the customer-facing end, LoweBots answer simple questions, scan products for price checks, and offer maps to find certain products. These robots are effectively physical chatbots—giving customers quick answers to simple questions and freeing human sales associates to help with more complex projects. On the business side, LoweBots are continually scanning the stores for gaps in inventory, and analyzing customer buying habits over time. And Lowe’s isn’t the only retailer investing in robotics.
Walmart is investigating and testing similar applications, including inventory and product delivery, but has already deployed robotic units in stores for a simple task—cleaning floors.
Research is currently underway across both retail and robotics to assess the value and application of customer service robots to attend to complex issues and a more sophisticated shopping service. Most early prototypes have yet to prove a return on investment, instead providing novelty without practicality or sustainability. Still, some retailers are uninhibited by these factors, and continue to explore this cutting-edge technology. When further advancements provide a viable and successful model, advancements will dramatically change the customer-to-brand engagement model, as well as the classic brick-and-mortar model.
But the sales floor isn’t the only place for robotics—what about behind the cash wrap, or on the stockroom floor?
Smart warehouses and robotic manufacturing machinery complete tasks in minutes that historically can take hours or even days—such as inventory, stocking, and packaging. Robotic units eliminate gaps to source products quickly, track stocking and restocking trends, and fulfill orders at a fraction of the time it takes to complete manually.
Applying robotics to warehouses and stockrooms offers the biggest return on investment for retailers, as these robots don’t require the refinements needed for customer interactions. Units can be made for efficiency rather than tailored to customer engagement, and have the capacity to collect data and derive insights about customer purchase patterns to inform future business decisions. E-commerce especially stands to benefit from warehouse robotics, bringing efficiency to the complex series of interactions between customer, supplier, and delivery.
Unsurprisingly, e-commerce giant, Amazon, is a gold standard when discussing warehouse efficiency. Robots pick and pack items ordered by customers in a way that may look nonsensical to the human eye, but is astutely optimized for maximum efficiency. Instead of grouping products together in categories—as would make sense for humans—robotics informs mapping efficiencies that spread different products at random throughout the warehouse. Doing so eliminates the distance it would otherwise take to send each individual robot to the same section of the warehouse. By keeping products across the warehouse, the product is always within reach. And since courier bots work on the same operating system, they are spread out to ensure that the product is being taken from the closest group for the highest efficiency. Due to the accuracy of these robot “pickers” in distribution centers, Amazon stated that after first implementing the robots, operating costs decreased by 20%. Amazon is currently working on better integrating robots to work better with human warehouse employees, so even the gold standard has room for improvement.
There are many opportunities to implement robotics in the warehouse with a sizeable return on investment. While the warehouse provides a straightforward implementation for today, the growing sophistication of robotics promises that even delivery will be automated in the near future.
Advancements in the autonomous vehicle industry offer near-future efficiency for retail delivery. Instead of relying on human drivers, autonomous vehicles will provide not only the means of transport but self-regulate for delivery conditions, such as for products that must be stored at a specific temperature or humidity. Autonomous delivery vehicles also have the capability to release smaller robotic units for simultaneous deliveries. Instead of a person traveling building by building, smaller robotic units may be released from the vehicle to complete deliveries at the same time. While regulatory concerns have traditionally been a deterrent (consider the hype that drone delivery revealed several years ago), Ford is already researching the possibilities in partnership with Walmart. As research and testing increases, so too will the possibilities.
Getting into retail robotics
How accessible is robotics for most retailers? IDC projects that by 2023, 25% of leading retail stores will have explored or deployed in-store robots to relieve human workers from repetitive tasks. These deployments have the capability to augment employees’ productivity by up to 40%.
Don’t become a fast-follower, start realizing efficiencies with robotics in retail and gain a competitive edge, today.
Source: SoftServe Whitepaper