The rise of robots in retail will be swift


Yesterday US retail chain Lowe’s announced that it will be launching a robot assistant named OSHbot in one of its Orchard Supply Hardware outlets.

The Wall Street Journal notes:

The home improvement retailer is testing robots that use natural-language-processing technology to understand customer queries in English and Spanish. Video screens allow for video conferences with store experts—actual people—while a 3-D scanner can help customers identify items. Lowe’s Innovation Labs, which built the robot with startup Fellow Robots, equates the technology with making the shopping experience more personal.

There are a number of other initiatives in the space. SaviOne is a hotel concierge robot that delivers snacks and amenities to hotel guests, shown below. I have been told by sources close to Savioke, the company that makes the robot, that they are also planning robots for retail which may be available soon.

Of course automation in retail is not new, with bank tellers now largely replaced by machines.

Fast food is one of the domains which is the most prone to automation. As I described in an interview on Today Tonight, pre-ordering and service are beginning to be automated in fast food chains.

There are of course stories about robot restaurants in China and elsewhere which are largely novelties, but do point to the future.

The reality is that service will be more efficient and lower cost – leading to less expensive food – so many fast food chains will rapidly adopt robot and automated service. Just as we have grown used to banking at ATMs, we will soon accept the same trend in fast food.

As the pace of progress in robotics accelerates, initiatives such as Lowe’s OSHbot that can have conversations with shoppers are becoming feasible. When necessary they can switch to video conversations with live humans, just as many US auto rental companies are now using video kiosks to serve their customers, creating significant improvements in the productivity of staff as they can help in whichever store in the country the queues are the longest.

Physical retail is highly challenged by online alternatives. Cost efficiency pressures and the drive to create unique experiences in a physical store mean that robots will become commonplace in retail in the relatively near future.

Let me know when you next spot a robot when you are shopping!