For years now, futurists have predicted that robots will take over every aspect of human life, lending a helping hand in literally every single field. While the vision hasn’t materialized at the pace at which it was originally predicted, there have been much advancement in the field. For instance, iRobot’s Roomba® i7+ Robot Vacuum uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation to map and adapt to homes, determining the best way to clean all rooms and giving homeowners control by deciding which rooms need to be cleaned via Alexa-enabled devices.
Innovation-based companies are increasingly using AI and connectivity to enhance ‘robot technology’ making robots more advanced than ever, and one industry which is increasingly finding use for and adopting robots – both at the backend and in-store, on the front end – is Retail.
Historically, retailers have been incorporating robots and robotics in distribution, warehouses centers and manufacturing units, to assemble, pack and ship orders. However, as technology advances, a new generation of robots is graduating from back-end operations and becoming a reality in retail stores, interacting with humans at store fronts. Retailers are using robots in a bid to relieve their retail associates from the more mundane tasks of retail and ensuring that their focus shifts to customer-facing activities instead.
Today, many top national and international retailers have started putting robots on the retail floor. They have either started testing or are in the process of testing a new line of robots that audit inventory even as they share store aisles with customers.
New navigation and cognitive abilities have enabled robots to become more agile and take on more tasks, from moving products at distribution centers to helping direct customers around the store. They are new trend greeting customers with polite smiles, fetching items for them from shelves and even advising them on fashion choices. Sometimes they simply meander through aisles, taking stock of inventory.
Robots: Revolutionising Retail
Robots have replaced humans to an extent that they are performing the same tasks more efficiently by reducing errors and saving both time and costs, thus increasing productivity and profit margins. Anything a man can do a robot can do 10 times more effi ciently and consistently.
The retail industry introduced robotics in their functioning only after 2003. While still not an integral part of all roles in the industry, robots have maximum utility in 3 basic functions in the industry:
– In-store customer service
– Warehouse management
– Reducing the distance between physical stores and customers.
“The same garment a human will cut manually in 30-45 minutes, a machine will do in a matter of 2-3 minutes. If we talk about garment construction, manually a tailor takes 3-5 hours to stitch a basic shirt, wherein an automated machine will complete the task in a matter of 30 minutes at the most. This automation and digitalisation will increase supply chain productivity and greatly improve the fashion industry’s sustainability performance,” explains Samiksha Bajaj, Co-founder, Samshék.
“Increased and speedy production will automatically result in increased profi ts. Since production time will decrease by 80 percent it will be far easier to launch new trends, and at a much faster pace. As soon as a trend is introduced on the runway, it will be seen in the stores the next day. Things will become a lot easier. With automated 3D Design Software, there will no longer be the need to generate a copy of a design every time, thereby reducing sample costs,” she adds.
Robots Provide That Human Touch
The retail industry has historically been a consumer-facing industry and traditionally, brands have followed a ‘onesize- fits-all’ way of functioning in terms of customer servicing. However, with the introduction of robotics technology and advanced AI mechanisms, the industry has found a way to provide personalised and customised services which will truly help in future transformation.
“Robotics will definitely make things more organised, creative and efficient. The sole purpose is not to steal away human jobs, it’s more about completing jobs which were not being done before due to lack of activeness and saving companies from the significant financial losses inventory management problems cause. Productivity will increase and so will sales. And it will automatically lead to growth of the business. The problems of inventory management, sales records, customer handling will improve. It will create a world where nothing is impossible to achieve,” says Bajaj.
“Make no mistake, technology resets consumer expectations. With pervasive technology like robotics, it is much easier to address individual needs,” adds Naviin Ibhrampurkar, Head of Marketing and Corporate Communications, Inorbit Malls.
Robotics is impacting the industry in multiple ways – more customer handling in parallel than any executive can handle, and increased customer satisfaction levels due to crisper issue identification and resolution.
“We have seen almost 35 percent improvement in customer issue resolutions post bot usage. The customer care team can now invest the same time in more pro-active efforts for customer engagement, than reactive resolutions,” says Neha Kant, Co-founder and CRO, Clovia.
Although the concept of automation is still at ground level, once that has been accomplished, the future of retail will see new heights in terms of perfection, accuracy and efficiency and scalability.
“Automation also enhances customer’s shopping experience, while generating greater user engagement. There is less need for advertisements and marketing since consumers are attracted to a personalised shopping experience provided by automation,” Bajaj explains.
Adding to this, Gaurav Dewan, COO and Business Head, Travel Food Services shares, “This kind of technology has witnessed great acceptance in the industry and we predict that soon, it will become a norm to have robots service customers at retail outlets so that actual personnel can focus on creating experiences for customers.”
Retailers can see this adoption of robots as an opportunity for the advancement of their businesses and to become more efficient if they want first mover advantage for that edge over competitors. However, as with every technology there comes an associated cost, there have been huge investments going into the adoption of robots, whose benefits are expected to translate over the years, by making businesses more cost effective eventually.
“In the near future, everything has the potential of coming under robotics umbrella. From the lighting system in the store to the PoS (Point of Sales) system etc. It connects people, machines, items, and services to streamline the fl ow of information, enable real-time decisions, and heightens consumer experiences,” says Baqar Iftikhar Naqvi, Business Director – Retail and Consumer Products, Wazir Advisors.
“Retailers who have made provision of large budgets in order to take robotics innovation in-house, are expected to see real world benefits in near future,” he adds.
Areas of Operation
Robotics in the past have a proven to be useful and a vital part of supply chain automation, helping streamline these otherwise complicated networks.
The world’s first industrial robot was shaped for only the purpose of shifting objects from one place to another. Today, most tasks that are vital to the supply chain, like the movement of products through a warehouse, are done by robots.
“In the current scenario, robotic technology or robots are playing a major role in each and every aspect of retail like enabling better coordination among warehouses, helping in logistics and management with minimal error. Robots are believed to enhance customer experience and upgrade brand value by providing outstanding services. The stores nowadays are equipped with automated machines helping and guiding customers, refilling shelves, moving kiosks, etc. basically providing in-store customer service and bringing store to the customer virtually,” says Naqvi.
“Robots are also used for inventory management – from shelving to tracking products, maintaining expiry, delivery, order records, warehouse operations to make the process less tiresome and more efficient along with after sales services like delivery, handling customer care support and grievances through call centres,” he adds.
Presently there are many problems in the manufacturing industry like there are problems in getting timely deliveries which can be reduced by 90 percent with automation, and then comes perfection. Even the most skilled labour cannot provide us the consistency the industry needs.
“So, going ahead, one can say robots will be most useful the field of manufacturing. The production time will be drastically reduced. The time and hard work that goes into stitching and then final checking will become a lot easier. If from fabric cutting till packaging all the work will be done by robots, it will automatically get reduced to 99 minutes, where earlier it was supposed to be 12 hours starting from cutting till finishing,”says Bajaj.
Robots v/s Retail Associates
Increase in cost of human labour has exhorted many retailers to move towards automation or more advanced level of technologies which includes replacing human labours with robots. This adoption of technology has resulted in many retailers cutting down their costs by a huge margin. For instance, Amazon which has successfully cut down their costs by 20 percent due to introduction of robots, stands as a testament to benefits of robots over retail employees. This reduction in costs is ultimately going to result in providing products to customers at a better value.
“Robots can also free people of the need to perform dangerous and arduous tasks or take charge of certain simple and even complicated and repetitive activities, performing them better than humans,” says Naqvi.
“With ever-increasing warehouses and distribution centres, there has been a spike in demand for skilled workers. For example, in the US, it is estimated that warehouses and distribution centres will need more than 5 lakh workers by 2020. But in a country which is already labour strapped and with not enough skilled workers, robots are proving to be a better alternative to fill the gap. Delivery services, food retailers etc. are all experimenting with robots, drones and self-driving cars in order to reduce on their delivery time as well as high costs,”he adds.
Robots also help in attracting and engaging customers, ensuring that they visit the same outlet again and again mostly because of the novelty and sense of futuristic experience they bring with them.
“The application of robotics has brought in higher efficiency in the functioning of the restaurant in terms of shorter wait time for customers, lesser time for food preparation or even smoother serving of the order,” explains Dewan.
Going ahead, robots will also be able to provide a more personalised shopping experience. They can lift heavy materials, act fast, learn 10 times faster than a human brain and make no mistakes.
“A robot will not get sick, will not leave the company under any circumstances and will show the same level of dedication and consistency in their work throughout. This will make the dependency that we today have on our employees zero. With the technology of brain mapping, it will be easier to read a person’s mind- scanning its preferences, style and personality. At times, humans can only guess but a robot will give 100 percent accurate result, thereby, giving them exactly what they need,” states Bajaj.
The Future of Retail Associates
Customer satisfaction is the most important aspect of any retail business. A retail associate is responsible for improving engagement with customers and providing outstanding customer service but when it comes to professionalism,robots take the lead.
“Robotics also reduces the time and investment that goes into training the employee and the losses that retailers have to incur when the same employee is not able to perform well,” shares Bajaj.
Recently, many large retailers have replaced personnel with robots to serve customers and give them that unique shopping experience.
“However, we believe that the role of such personnel will not completely disappear due to introduction of robotics but that job functions may evolve over the years. Now, with robots to take care of mundane tasks such as answering queries and guiding customers through the store layout, associates can focus more on necessary activities in the retail industry,” states Dewan.
With the entry of robots, employees need to move higher in the order and take up jobs which involve more creativity and personal interaction eventually contributing directly in the development and scaling up of the business. Rather than being slaves to technology, retail associates can be the masters of their customer management skills and become brand ambassadors of the product.
“The use of technology to bring about efficiencies in retail may drive job losses, but at the same time, they may introduce new types of workers as stores become less about concluding transactions and more about creating a good customer experience. Stores in the future are expected to be staff ed with sales associates and their role will be like a personalised consultant for each customer with basic jobs like billing etc. will get robotised,” says Naqvi.
Resonating the same thoughts, Ibhrampurkar shares, “One without the other will lead to a sub-optimal solution. The key is to integrate both and derive a cohesive experience.”