Robots in retail: the future of customer service?

When consumers walk through physical aisles of a supermarket or browse online catalogues these days, it is easy to overlook a vital and emerging trend – robots in retail.

Robotics play a crucial role in cultivating a holistic retail experience for consumers in ways that have not been seen or thought of before. In warehouses, robots boost productivity and speed up the shipping of goods to stores and customers. Robots have also been drafted in stores, ready to serve customers with efficient inventory management. As the role of robotics in retail advances, we will see the same increase in speed and efficiency apply to the shopping experience as it has for industrial applications.

Robots are making a timely appearance in the retail landscape as businesses today face pressure from multiple angles. Besides facing intense competition, they are also having to cater to a business environment that is being turned topsy-turvy as e-commerce grows.

Consumer preference is also going through rapid transformation as shoppers become accustomed to e-commerce experiences that allow for cross-site comparisons, competitive prices and the convenience of shopping anytime, anywhere as they are connected via a computer or mobile device.

The retail industry stands to gain as a whole with the entrance of robotics technology. Robots are being deployed, both in e-commerce businesses and brick-and-mortar establishments, to enhance efficiency and strengthen logistical and operational functions. Indirectly, this should translate to improved service levels and shopping experiences, and perhaps even lower costs.

Workers in the retail industry too stand to benefit as robots can take on menial, mundane or dangerous tasks, freeing them up for knowledge-driven work.

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Robots in retail can take on frontline, customer-facing roles too. As artificial intelligence capabilities grow, robots are emerging from beyond behind-the-scenes operations. Retailers have started to accommodate in-store robot assistants, able to direct traffic and perform important roles such as inventory management, freeing staff to handle more complex tasks.

One such retailer is Walmart, which has installed robots into 50 of its stores across the US. These robots cruise along supermarket aisles checking shelves for items that need to be restocked, as well as merchandise that is misplaced or incorrectly priced. This vital information is then communicated to store staff who take necessary action. Equipped with cameras, these robots scan shelves three times faster than humans and are more accurate in picking irregularities. The engagement of robots is a pivotal component of Walmart’s plan to boost efficiency and accessibility of shoppers.

Warehouses and delivery: hardwired for efficiency

To satisfy today’s customer expectations of receiving goods faster, and with low or no delivery charges, retailers must develop an effective logistics system. Robots can help ease the pressure on retailers by improving logistical functions that are otherwise time-consuming. One example is how automation and robotics are used in smart warehouses to move large volumes of items through storage systems in a quick and reliable fashion, while still monitoring the exact location of each item at all times.

Global retail stalwart Amazon built its success on automating its warehouse operations while maintaining its top-10 status in the ranks of the biggest employers. Fuelled by the support of the 55,000 robots employed last year, Amazon offered quicker deliveries at lower costs and led the retail industry in sales growth.

Closer to home, robots have progressively proven themselves at Alibaba. The company recently introduced ‘Steel Soldiers’, a film about human and robots fighting shoulder-to-shoulder together. Its renowned smart warehouse is laden with sensor-charged robots who perform 70 per cent of tasks and can each carry up to 500kg of goods.

Its competitor JD.com has also started using robots for the transportation of goods within 20km. Using robots has reduced JD’s unit delivery cost by 80 per cent and it’s fully automated sorting centre handles 9000 online shopping orders per hour – an operation previously performed by 180 human sorters.

Alibaba and JD are testament to the idea that robotics can add value to shoppers by reducing delivery costs and speeding up logistical processes, even if they never meet them.

* Lieu Yew Fatt is MD of Omron Electronics, Singapore, responsible for managing the sales operation of the company’s industrial automation business in Singapore and leading digital industry sales in Asia Pacific.

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