Currently, the robots working at retail stores perform pretty basic tasks, but they still offer tremendous help to businesses and consumers. Walmart teamed with technology company Bossa Nova Robotics to explore its stores to find empty shelf spaces. When the shelf-scanning robot finds an empty space, it can inform workers to replace the depleted merchandise with boxes from the warehouse.
Some workers may complain that the Bossa Nova robots at Walmart steal jobs from human workers. Scanning shelves, however, is a tiring, repetitive task that few people want to do. Robots perform the job without complaint. As a result, shelves stay stocked and customers can find the products they want to buy.
Giant Food Stores, a grocery chain with locations in West Virginia, Virginia, and Maryland, uses its robot, Marty, in more novel ways. Marty spends most of its time searching grocery store floors for hazards like broken jars of mayonnaise and spilled fruit. The robot has eight cameras that work in conjunction with artificial intelligence to spot safety hazards.
When it sees a potential threat, it warns nearby customers by saying, Caution, hazard detected. The grocery store chain hopes that reducing slip-and-fall accidents will help lower its insurance premiums. Marty also has the ability to locate out-of-stock products, check prices throughout stores, and showcase items customers might want to buy.
It's difficult to know what the future will bring for robots working in retail stores. Today's features, however, point to some possibilities.
For example, it would make sense for grocery stores that offer online ordering and pickup services to let robots perform every step of the operation. A robot could receive the order automatically, collect items from the store shelves, and take the order to the customer's vehicle.
Automating the process means that customers could get faster services. Robots don't need time to memorize item locations, so they can complete the order quickly. It also means that human employees could focus on customer engagement. Instead of spending time finding items on store shelves, employees could interact with customers to teach them about new products and boost sales.
A new generation of robots could provide more safety features than Marty. Marty has somewhat limited abilities. It cannot, for instance, climb a ladder to retrieve an item stored on a high shelf. It's not hard to imagine future robots with hydraulic lifts that make accessing those items easy and safe.
The next generation of retail robots may even gain the ability to leave stores and provide last-mile deliveries. Pizza chain Domino's says that it has started experimenting with delivery robots. Instead of clogging city streets with cars, the pizza restaurant could send a relatively small robot that uses the sidewalk. The robot could even have a built-in heating element that keeps pizzas fresh during delivery.
While some people will fear the robot revolution in retail, it's hard to envision a future that doesn't involve robots serving customers within retail spaces. Customers want the efficiency and lower prices that robots can bring to the industry. Plus, it's impossible to ignore the novelty of interacting with robots. Eventually, robots will become commonplace. Until then, consumers can look forward to seeing more robots in retail environments.