Fantasy or Reality: Are Robots Taking Over Retail?
It’s a familiar scenario: what was supposed to be a quick run to the hardware store ends with you searching the aisles for 40 minutes, trying to find the right size hex bolt. You cry out for assistance, but no one hears; your calls just bounce off the walls and echo back at you. Amongst the endless rows of nuts and bolts – you’re alone.
The Light at the End of the Aisle
Though this situation is commonplace now, it may not be so in the near future. Lowe’s has recently begun testing out a robotic sales assistant in one of their California stores. The robot, named OSHbot, was developed at Fellow Robots. OSHbot has a built-in 3D scanning viewfinder and knows where everything is in the store. The robot can find what you’re looking for just by showing it the object. For example, if something fell out of your kitchen plumbing, and you have no idea what it is, just show it to OSHbot and it will bring you to the correct aisle. Oh, and OSHbot is also bilingual.
Lowe’s isn’t the first company to use customer assistance robots, either. Amazon has been using robots in their warehouses for years now, and recently installed more than 15,000 of them in 10 locations across the U.S. This past holiday season, Best Buy tested out a robot named Chloe at their busy New York City store. It wasn’t long before other big name stores like Target and Lowe’s joined the robotic ranks.
Retail Jobs Could be at Risk
Does all this new technology mean traditional retail jobs will go the way of the 8-track? At the moment, it’s unclear. While robots certainly do have the potential to take over retail jobs, for the time being, they’re supplementing the retail labor shortage that has been going on for several years. Consumer demands are increasing, and big stores simply don’t have the manpower to keep up with them. For now, retailers are using the robots to speed up shipping and stocking time, and make the customer experience more streamlined.
The Davos World Economic Forum held last month explored the impact of automation and artificial intelligence on employment and economies worldwide. What was formerly the stuff of science fiction movies, has now made its way off the silver screen and into real world data analysis and economic projections and it’s making some people nervous as they wonder if robots are the future of retail. The answer might surprise you.
Those fearful of what’s being called the Robot Revolution or the Second Machine Age won’t be too happy to hear that it is estimated that its impact will result in 5 million workers worldwide being replaced by robots and automation in the next five years. The losses are predicted to be felt evenly for both men and women.
A new generation of robotic workers are emerging and they don’t just work in the warehouse anymore. Best Buy and Lowe’s are both on the cutting edge as they use test robots in the customer service field as part of a larger business model in which customers interact increasingly with automated software designed to streamline the buying experience and keep costs at a minimum. While Panera doesn’t yet offer table side robotic service, it has rolled out the Panera 2.0 initiative, which founder Ron Shaich says is not designed to reduce human jobs but to translate labor savings into offering a higher quality dining experience to their customers.
Only time will tell whether robots will edge out their human competition in the retail market. The new generation of robots are not only capable of the physical and repetitive tasks that many people are glad to give up, but they are now advanced enough to become a viable substitution for more complex cognitive skills. Both blue and white collar workers will be keeping an eye on robotic advancements as they decide between human or robotic interaction as they place their lunch order.