Retail 5.0 – the rise of the intelligent machines

  • Published: 25-May-2018

With the convergence of artificial intelligence, the cloud, and all things digital, retail storefronts will soon witness robotassisted consumer shopping

When the movie I, Robot was released way back in 2004, audiences across the globe went ballistic with the idea of having robots as wonder housekeepers. Almost a decade later, these intelligent machines have made their way into retail stores, assisting consumers with impeccable shopping experiences, almost rendering the human store associate obsolete.From the assembling of machine parts in the automotive and manufacturing sectors, robots have come a long way to redefine the future of retail consumerism.If industry experts are to be believed, artificial intelligence is all set to invade the retail industry and take charge of not only product packaging and distribution but also the most coveted retail paradigm – superior customer engagement through rich, personalised shopping experiences.

Intelligent e-commerce vs. robot aided brick-and-mortar store assistance – the adoption isn’t going to be that easy. Or fast.

While this whole concept of robotics assisted retail sounds fantastic, will retailers be able to easily and quickly adapt to this huge dependency shift from human involvement to artificial intelligence? Before we find an answer to this question, let us look at some real-time adoption of robotics in retail:

  • Home improvement and apparel store Lowe’s has deployed the OSHbot – a multilingual robot store assistant that helps consumers find items they require from the store aisles and LoweBot – a NAViiservice robot capable of scanning and auditing in-store inventory
  • American consumer electronics store Best Buy uses a robot named Chloe that fetches products selected by customers at a kiosk
  • Discount store retailer Target has recently started testing Tally – a robot that moves through store aisles to check inventory levels
  • S based apparel store Hointer uses robots to deliver clothes selected by customers to the fitting rooms

Now coming back to the question of whether the retail industry will be quick in its adoption of robotics as a service. While it is safe to assume that retailers are completely sold out on the concept of using artificial intelligence to promote customer service, the adoptability factor hinges oncertain inherent challenges that come with infusing technology into human interaction. An attempt has been made to outline some of these challenges below.

Cost is a major factor. Robots come at a phenomenal price, which encompasses components such as hardware, software,IT costs, and other artificial intelligence parameters that influence pricing. At some level, it might make more business sense to hire employees than employ robots.

Robots lack the human element. Robots are machines after all and may not necessarily comprehend human mannerisms, emotions, and body language accurately.When we talk about scanning a customer’s facial expressions before making a purchase suggestion, there is a big chance robots might fail to interpret the customer’sgestures correctly, which can lead to a poor or dissatisfied shopping experience.

Centralised management can be a tedious task. With more number of retailers testing artificial intelligence in-store, retail brands are most likely to deploy a large number of robots to help with store assistance across their global brick-and-mortar stores in future. Managing a large robot workforce spread across different geographical regions can be a difficult task, especially when brands want to consider a central monitoring system for effective management. Again, cost here is a big complexity.

Cloud enablement can address inherent challenges in robot assisted retailing

Cloud has proliferated all industry verticals and the retail industry is no exception. When it comes to robot assisted retail, cloud based systems could very well address most of the challenges that stand in the way of retail adoption of artificial intelligence. Using cloud services can resolve scalability issues and enable retailers to minimise adoption costs, enable smarter business networks by integrating robots with cameras and RFID systems, and embed new skills directly into the robot’s central processing unit through a smartphone app.

Retailers are still working on firming up their e-commerce and omni-channelcommerce strategies. The adoption of robotics in retail is yet to pick up speed, and retailers who have already embraced artificial intelligence in their brick-and-mortar stores are trying to justify the ROI of this initiative. It is but obvious that therewill be agestation period in the retail adoption of in-store robots and according to experts, it might take a few yearsfor a substantial number of retail brands to start investing in these new-age mechanised store assistants.

Challenges notwithstanding, it is apparent that the future of retail technology rests on the shoulders of these intelligent machines. Brands need to allocate routine, mundane, or even physically strenuous jobs (such as in warehouses) to robots, leaving the job of customer service to human store assistants. Robots can help drive store footfalls, especially when deployed as storefront greeters – in which case the very novelty of the idea can increase the number of customer visits to the store. By tracking customer data through intelligent technology, robots can alert store assistants on individual customer preferences and purchase patterns, thereby enabling assistants to offer more personalised product recommendations. The future will be driven by artificial intelligence and smart retailing of the 21st century is all about a seamless human-machine communication capable of enabling rich and diversified customer experiences.

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