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Retail Revolution: How Robots Are Transforming Shopping Experiences

POSTED 12/12/2023

The retail scene has undergone huge transformations in recent years, specifically in the aftermath of the universal coronavirus pandemic. With restrictions limiting access to retail parks, shopping centres, and high streets worldwide, there was a notable influx in e-commerce orders. As COVID-related limitations eased and consumers returned to brick-and-mortar outlets, numerous distributors adopted innovative working methods, placing automation at the core of their practices. As a result, a tide of novel assistants emerged within our shops, and intriguingly, not all of them were human. Here, we delve into the growth of robotic and automation integration in the retail sector. 

As a premier provider of optical components for robot and automation applications, we briefly explored how robots are used in retail in our latest blog.

 

The topic has gained significant attention from the general public, especially as Zara consumers share captivating TikTok videos illustrating the modern-day store helpers efficiently retrieve and deliver parcels. This surge in interest has led to a noticeable increase in curiosity and is, therefore, expected to drive future demand. Significantly, the meaning behind the deployment of the self-operating bots surpasses social media's likes and shares. By minimising time spent waiting and, consequently, reducing the risk of missed sales by those frustrated by standing in never-ending queues, they elevate procedures and create extra opportunities for staff members to focus on more engaging roles. In essence, these additions contribute to an overall enhancement of today's customer journeys, a factor that is indispensable for positively impacting any merchant's bottom line.

Let's explore instances where bots have played a key role in supporting the international retail scene:

Empowering Mega Retail Outlets

Robotic systems are particularly advantageous for larger stores with warehouse-type premises, mostly where 'everything's bigger' – the US.

Membership-only brands such as BJ's Wholesale and Sam's Club, two of America's largest warehouse clubs, are harnessing the power of AI-driven robots to handle routine stock management duties traditionally completed by team members. The 'inventory bots,' kitted out with cameras and sensors, fulfil a vital function in confirming pricing and identifying out-of-stock (OOS) goods; mundane responsibilities that are usually actively avoided by employees.

 

Speaking at the June Baird 2023 Global Consumer, Technology & Services Conference, Kathryn J. McLay, Executive Vice President, President and Chief Executive Officer at Sam's Club, shared insights into their forward-thinking structure. She highlighted that the inventory bots not only read holdings but also include floor scrubbing abilities. According to McLay, Sam's Club is one of the pioneers globally, obtaining a daily snapshot that precisely details the whereabouts and quantity of merchandise throughout the entire business [1].

The impact of setups such as this is substantial, potentially saving retailers billions, as supported by NielsenIQ's data revealing that sales losses from empty shelves and OOS wares amounted to $82bn for US retailers in 2021 [2]. By automating processes through highly efficient techniques, there is a noteworthy prospect for this figure to decrease over time. The approach not only handles purchaser considerations but works toward an uptick in transactions and addresses the persistent worker shortages, too.

Intelligent Solutions for DIY brand

In a comparable setting characterised by extensive, industrial-style facilities, the US home improvement company Stine has also integrated automated bots to perform in a similar way.

 

Developed by Badger Technologies, the versatile machines are designed to identify OOS objects and enhance the reliability of pricing, much like those used by BJ's and Sam's Club. Remarkably, they pledge an impressive accuracy rate of over 95%, simultaneously contributing to a potential 50% reduction in OOS products and a remarkable 97% progress in price-tag accuracy [3].

 

 

Customer-Focused Automation

In addition to handling maintenance and behind-the-scenes jobs, automation is increasingly impacting public-facing interactions.

 

For example, in the UK, the electronics retailer Currys embraced the benefits of employing mechanised helpers in January by initiating a trial of the AI voice iteration KettyBot. Originally associated with the hospitality arena, KettyBot is strategically placed at the entrance of select shops. Armed with a sizable touchscreen, visitors can easily choose their desired product area, and the bot guides them to the specified location. Notably, they exhibit interactive skills, facilitating seamless communication. In cases where a Currys store is spread across multiple levels, one KettyBot directs customers to the lift or stairs while another stands ready to continue guiding them to their intended area.

 

Enhancing Safety and Inventory Management In Supermarkets

Back in the US, grocery store patrons are encountering new towering devices in their aisles. A user captured footage on TikTok showcasing Badger Technologies' Marty, which is equipped with cameras, sensors, a navigation system, and specialised software. It serves a dual purpose by detecting potential floor hazards, such as spills. The enhanced version of the bot, recently deployed in over 300 Stop & Shop locations in the US [4], goes beyond hazard detection. It also performs additional tasks like conducting product checks. This functionality contributes to maintaining optimal on-shelf availability by promptly notifying associates when items require restocking and signalling OOS situations.

 

 

Shaping the Future of Retail

While the prevalence of bots is increasing, there are some who still need to seize the advantages fully. However, a broader adoption of this form of automation is predicted in the coming years. Consider self-checkout cashiers, which were initially reserved for tech-savvy retailers but are now commonplace in supermarket chains of all sizes across the world. Aligning with the insights from tech analyst ABI Research, the anticipated annual revenue from retail robotics is expected to surpass $8.4bn by the year 2030 [5].

 

Optics at the Helm

As retailers adapt and embrace technological advancements, the role of optics cannot be overstated. From heightening safety, such as Marty's detection of dangers, to optimising stock control, optical precision is the backbone of these innovations.  ‍‍ As a trusted supplier of optical components for various utilisations, we are positioned at the forefront of this transformative wave at Knight Optical, ensuring that as retailers evolve, so does the seamless integration of optics and automation. ‍‍ In conclusion, the synergy between automation, optics, and the evolving commerce landscape promises not only operational performance but also a redefined buyer experience. The future holds an environment where automation seamlessly enhances routines, propelling the industry into a new era of efficiency, accessibility, and customer-centric innovation.Prepared to meet the growing needs of the expanding realm, we are steadfast in our commitment to pushing the boundaries and refining the capabilities of these pioneering systems.

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] https://corporate.walmart.com/content/dam/corporate/documents/newsroom/events/baird-2023-global-consumer-technology-services-conference/Corrected-Transcript-Baird-2023-Global-Consumer-Technology-Services-Conference-June-7-2023.pdf

[2] https://www.cnbc.com/video/2023/04/22/how-autonomous-inventory-robots-could-save-retailers-billions.html

[3] https://www.retail-insight-network.com/news/stine-badger-technologies-robotics/?cf-view

[4] https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20230918477210/en/Badger-Technologies-and-Stop-Shop-Stores-Upgrade-Marty-the-Robot-at-300-Locations-to-Improve-Customer-Shopping-Experiences

[5] https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/future-robots-retail-transforming-customer-operations-ben-simon/