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Why a robot may be in your store’s future


Domino’s DRU, an autonomous delivery vehicle, is a sleek little robot that’s designed with a friendly persona and welcoming lighting to help customers identify and interact with it. DRU can navigate from a Domino’s to a customer’s house, using on-board sensors to dodge obstacles if needed.

For decades, the pizza delivery experience has followed a simple routine: a customer places an order, and a delivery boy or girl drives the pizza to a customer’s house shortly after it’s made. For the past three months, however, Domino’s customers in Queensland, Australia, have had an opportunity to experience a new type of delivery from a two-foot-tall white robot.

The four-wheeled DRU, or Domino’s Robotics Unit, started its services in April, delivering pizzas exclusively to Australian Domino’s customers in specific locations. It joins a growing list of retail and restaurant robots, essentially replacing the services of the aforementioned delivery driver, keeping pizzas warm and drinks cold as it scoots along to its destination.

While the DRU is now only a singular prototype within the Domino’s system, it represents something bigger: a glimpse at the future of retail robots. “He will not only be the face of our autonomous delivery developments but also the face of our future bots and AI,” said Michael Gillespie, chief digital officer of Domino’s Australia, referring to artificial intelligence.

The Domino’s Innovation Lab partnered up with Australian Start Up Marathon Robotics to create the DRU. While Australian citizens are the only group today able to get pizzas delivered from the DRU, the company is looking at six countries for expansion, including Japan, Germany and New Zealand.

I am Chloe

The retail robotic presence hasn’t just been seen overseas; last year Best Buy implemented its own automated, customer-facing technology here in the United States.

Last September, Best Buy began using “Chloe,” a robot that retrieves products that customers request through an encased kiosk. The one-armed robot can slide around and select items from rows of almost 15,000 DVDs, CDs, videos games and tech accessories. Think of Chloe as a vending machine that contains a helpful, silicon-based friend.

Unlike Best Buy’s brick and mortar stores, the Manhattan kiosk is open 24/7. Customers needing a phone charger at 3 a.m. can get it from Chloe rather than an employee forced to work the graveyard shift.

Lowe’s OSHbot

When stationary, Lowe’s OSHbot may look like an ordinary pillar, but it’s capable of communicating with customers and navigating its way through the store to retrieve desired items.

All hail the OSHbot

Lowe’s has taken its interactive technology a step further by introducing the OSHbot to its Orchard Supply Store in San Jose, California, in 2014. OSHbot is a five-foot-tall robot that can communicate with customers, navigate through store aisles using machine vision and retrieve desired items from store shelves. The robot speaks both English and Spanish, and will soon be implemented in Lowe’s stores throughout the county.

The OSHbot can scan specific tools or items, and customers can search for what they’re shopping for on the robot’s touch screen. Future robots could field real-time inventory checks to make sure they aren’t leading customers to an empty shelf.

Crossing over from helpful robots to virtual reality, Lowe’s Innovation Labs introduced the Holoroom. It allows customers to venture beyond their imaginations while designing a virtual kitchen or bathroom complete with furniture and appliances. The interactive room has expanded to 19 other store locations throughout the United States, and Lowe’s plans on releasing an iPhone app for at-home use.

Fending off Amazon

The boom of robotics in retail and delivery speaks to the future of sales and retail traffic, where everyone is looking to create an exciting in-store experience to fend off the dreaded “Amazon effect,” in which people just stay home and shop online. As online shopping sites take an ever-growing slice of retail sales, expect to see even more customer-facing innovation as boardroom thinking and technological advancements converge.

“What I think they’re trying to do with some of these technologies is to add conveniences and make the in-store experience as efficient and easy as possible, so that people want to come into the stores,” said Mike Davin, director of marketing and communications for Robot Alley, which owns and produces a number of conferences in the technology space.

Because most businesses haven’t had long-term exposure to automated services or AI-fueled robots, such innovations might seem like PR stunts rather than useful customer service advancements—although that’s likely to change sooner rather than later.

 “There is the knock on them that they might be kind of a gimmick,” said Davin. “Rather than being gimmicks, I think they’re more of experiments to see what works and what doesn’t.”

If these “experiments” do prove successful, it begs the inevitable question of whether the retail category will experience a robotic takeover, including the elimination of human jobs. Experts on the subject have taken a cautious stance, suggesting that a completely automated employee base is very unlikely—at least in the near term.

According to “Where machines could replace humans—and where they can’t (yet),” a report by consulting firm McKinsey and Co., automation will eliminate very few occupations entirely in the next decade, but will affect portions of almost all jobs to a greater or lesser degree.

It estimated that 53 percent of all activities in retail are automatable, and this all depends on the specific occupation within the sector. Packing and stocking merchandise are among the most frequent physical activities in retailing.

Reshaping, not replacing

Looking ahead, robots and automation will likely have the same effect as the implementation of the ATM: not replacing bank tellers entirely, just shaping what their key functions are.

Not all stores want to get in on the robot revolution. Ace Hardware, the world’s largest retail-owned cooperative in the world, has no plans to follow in the footsteps of its archrival Lowe’s.  

While Ace will continue to invest in technology to streamline tasks and improve its supply chain, CEO and President John Venhuizen stresses the importance of human interaction with consumers.

“As it pertains to retail stores and our consumers, our investments have been and will continue to be exclusively focused on better enabling people—not replacing them,” Venhuizen said.

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