Future Retail: Robots at your service?

Can robots revolutionise retail? If so, what will the future of retail look like?

Whether it is retail therapy, weekly grocery runs or buying a gift for a loved one to celebrate a special occasion, shopping is an integral part of our lives. The retail landscape has evolved and consumers today are blessed with a plethora of options now that they have access to always-connected devices and technologies like augmented reality that seek to enable more efficient purchasing decisions.

Alibaba Group’s ‘New Retail’ strategy is one example of how retailers are changing their approach in order to succeed in this new landscape. It is taking an omni-channel retail strategy to connect online shopping with brick-and-mortar experiences through technology and big data. While consumers walk through physical aisles of a supermarket or browse online catalogues, it is easy to overlook a vital and emerging component of the retail landscape today – robots.

Robotics play a crucial role in cultivating a holistic retail experience for consumers in ways that are sometimes not even seen or thought of before. In warehouses, robots boost productivity and speed up the dissemination of goods to stores and customers. Robots have also been drafted in stores, ready to serve customers with efficient inventory management. As the role of robotics in retail advances, we will see the same increase in speed and efficiency apply to the shopping experience as it has for industrial applications.

About the author

Yew Fatt Lieu

Lieu Yew Fatt, Managing Director, Omron Electronics Singapore

Warehouses and delivery, hardwired for efficiency

To satisfy today’s customer expectations of receiving goods faster, and with low delivery charges, retailers must develop an effective logistics system. Robots can help ease the pressure on retailers by improving logistical functions that are otherwise time-consuming. One example is how automation and robotics are used in smart warehouses to move large number of items through warehouse storage systems in a quick and reliable fashion, while still managing a visibility on the exact location of each item at all times.

Global retail stalwart Amazon built its success on automating its warehouse operations while maintaining its top-10 status in the Biggest Employers chart. Fuelled by the support of the 55,000 robots added to its ranks in 2017, Amazon offered quicker deliveries at lower costs and led the retail industry in sales growth.

Closer to home, robots have progressively proven themselves at Alibaba. The company recently introduced ‘Steel Soldiers’, a film about human and robots fighting shoulder-to-shoulder together. Its renowned smart warehouse is laden with sensor-charged robots who perform 70 percent of tasks and can each carry up to 500 kilograms of goods.

It’s competitor, JD.com, has also started using robots for the transportation of goods within 20km. Using robots has reduced JD’s unit delivery cost by 80 percent and it’s fully automated sorting centre handles 9,000 online shopping orders per hour, an operation normally performed by 180 human sorters.

Alibaba and JD are testament to the idea that robotics can add value to shoppers by reducing delivery costs and speeding up logistical processes, even if they never meet them.

Can.I.Help.You.Madam?... Beep

Robots can take on frontline, customer-facing roles too. As artificial intelligence capabilities grow, robots are emerging from beyond behind-the-scenes operations. Retailers have started to accommodate in-store robot assistants, able to direct traffic and perform important roles such as inventory management, freeing staff to handle more complex tasks.

One such retailer is Walmart, which has installed robots into 50 of its stores across the US. These robots cruise along supermarket aisles checking shelves for items that need to be restocked, as well as merchandise that are misplaced or incorrectly priced. This vital information is then communicated to store staff who take necessary action. Equipped with cameras, these robots scan shelves three times faster than humans and are more accurate in picking irregularities. The engagement of robots is a pivotal component of Walmart’s plan to boost efficiency and accessibility of shoppers.

Adding value for shoppers and staff

Robots are making a timely appearance in the retail landscape as businesses today face pressure from multiple angles. Besides facing intense competition, they are also having to cater to a business environment that is being turned topsy-turvy as ecommerce grows.

Consumer preference is also going through rapid transformation as shoppers become accustomed to ecommerce experiences that allow for cross-sites comparison, extremely competitive prices and the convenience of shopping anytime, anywhere as they are connected through a computer or a mobile device.

The retail industry stands to gain as a whole with the entrance of robotics technology. Robots are being deployed, both in ecommerce businesses and brick-and-mortar establishments, to enhance efficiency and strengthen logistical and operational functions. Indirectly, this should translate to improvement in service levels and shopping experiences, and perhaps even lower costs. Workers in the retail industry too stand to benefit as robots can take on menial, mundane or dangerous tasks, freeing them up for knowledge-driven work.

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