Robots, coming to a store near you

BY Steve Hornyak

Yes, it’s official. The robotics revolution is coming to retail, as it is in many industries. I know robots roaming store aisles probably still sounds like something from “Back to the Future,” however, within a decade, I’m confident they will be such a normal part of the store experience we will find it hard to imagine life without them.

The core of the robotic advances is not so much their ability to move freely, though this is important in a busy environment, but their ability to help process and analyze the vast amounts of information they observe in real time, and a store’s capacity to act upon it.

Robots have long been able to handle movement but with the advent of machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI), they can now see the things humans cannot, and help us make more accurate decisions. It doesn’t take much to imagine how this might be useful for retailers operating thousands of stores, with vast product ranges, which are constantly being searched for, moved around, put back in the wrong the place, going out of date, with new and changing promotional activity.

One way robotics is starting to help retailers is automating stock checking. This fairly monotonous task is surprisingly prone to human error. Robots on the other hand thrive on such repetitive, information-intensive tasks. By conducting full store sweeps, they can help ensure maximum availability and compliance during the busiest hours of the store.

Robots can help to make changes in real time to capitalize on this insight. A robot sweep combined with AI insight can reveal that reducing facings of one product, and replacing it with another, will increase overall sales. Incremental sales increases that result from each tiny improvement like this, scaled up across stores nationwide, could mean revenue increases in the millions, maybe billions.

Such comprehensive and automated knowledge of store shelves will also help retailers launch new services and create more revenue streams. A really exciting opportunity like this lies in the data they are collecting as they ‘look’ through the shelves to improve sales and efficiencies. A VP at one of the world’s big retailers recently told me that he believes that there are billions of dollars of value sitting on his store shelves in the form of data that he wants to capitalize on.

If robots can start analyzing what’s happening on the shelves across thousands of stores, that gives companies huge insight into brands. They can start getting detailed insight into which promotions are working, how product placement and design affects sales, the relationship between increased facings and diminishing returns. It can provide a truly granular insight into customer behavior that organizations will want to buy.

It’s these sorts of innovations that will provide retailers with new sources of revenue and better customer engagement. Retailers are certainly taking note. A recent report indicated a 300% increase in AI investment this year across all industries and retail is no exception. As AI is combined with robotics to offer comprehensive, automated solutions, expect these figures to keep rising.

However, it would be going too far to say we are already there. The technologies exist, and several big retailers are already using AI provide better insight into what’s happening on their shelves. However, retailers still need to identify the best strategies for deployment and look at how to integrate with other data capturing technologies. In order for retailers to make the most cost savings and potential new revenue streams, robots need to be considered as one part of the technology suite, not as a standalone solution. There is no doubt that robots will play a critical role in capturing data, but an ideal store situation should combine:

Robots – Used either once a day for full sweep of the store between 3 a.m.-6 a.m., or in between rush hour pick-up times.

• Static cameras – Taking images at least every 10-15 minutes on high velocity areas like end caps.

• Artificial intelligence – Using machine learning to turn the images captured by the robots and static cameras into insights that can drive action and allow retailers and CPGs to make better decisions about the shelf.

People – Completing tasks set by the insight from the robot and camera sweeps and ensuring the customers’ experience matches or exceeds expectation to keep them in the store and coming back.

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. But like anything, someone needs to be the early adopter. A risk, perhaps, but it is these technologies that will underpin the future of retail. For those responsible for a retailer’s technological future, retailers cannot miss an opportunity to use these technologies to create efficiencies, capitalize their data and improve customer service, to keep the shoppers coming and revenues healthy.

Steve Hornyak is CEO Americas of Trax Image Recognition, a leader in computer vision solutions for retail. The company enables tighter execution controls in-store and the ability to leverage competitive insights through their in-store execution tools, market measurement service and data science to unlock revenue opportunities at all points of sale.


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