Melding automation with the human touch

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Melding automation with the human touch

By David Orgel - 02/20/2019
Robots have long captured the imagination of science fiction enthusiasts. They even have played high-profile roles in movies, from Gort in “The Day the Earth Stood Still” to Hal 9000 in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

In the real world, robots are playing increasingly important roles in businesses including retail. For example, they are crucial to some warehouse efficiency functions for physical and online retailers. Now, however, bots are starting to advance from behind the scenes to the front of the store. Giant Food Stores, a Carlisle, Pa., unit of Ahold Delhaize, just moved from piloting to starting the full-scale deployment of its in-store robot, the 6-foot-3-inch “Marty.” This bot will be rolled out across the 172 Giant and Martin’s Food Markets stores. Other retailers that have put robots in customer-facing areas include Walmart, Target and Schnuck Markets.

All this leads to a host of new questions. What are the benefits of this in-store automation? Will they be realized? How will customers react? What will be the impact on associates?

This topic was spotlighted at the NRF Big Show in January at a session aptly-named, “Why is there a Robot in My Store?” Giant president Nicholas Bertram and his fellow panelists showcased new in-store robot developments, and should be congratulated for relaying the story line from many angles.

There’s no question that the potential benefits of customer-facing robots are significant. Giant’s early focus is on leveraging bots to help avoid such safety hazards as spills that can cause slips. The robot can put out alerts for quick corrective actions. Other likely near-term uses for retailers are supporting shelf auditing, demand forecasting and planograms, and battling out-of-stocks and food waste. A range of technologies likely is to play a role in these efforts, including artificial intelligence. The robot strategy lends itself to helping retail executive teams gain more visibility into store locations to improve operations.

The panel pointed to the “elephant in the room,” which is the impact on retail workforces. Does it replace people?

On the contrary, Bertram said, “Every retailer is focusing on servicing the customer, so freeing up associates for high-touch service is good. Customers want experts in stores.”

My feeling is that in-store robots can be a winning strategy, as long as retailers get the automation-human balance right. This requires rethinking in-store approaches.
Customers likely would be pleased if knowledgeable humans were more available for service. This would support the growing experiential goal of physical retail today. However, it requires investments, including for associate training and making sure employees are willing to engage with shoppers.

If science fiction has merged with reality, how are customers adapting to robots in the aisles? Pretty well, based on early evidence. Giant even found that some customers are posting selfies with Marty on social media. This isn’t completely surprising, given that consumers increasingly are accustomed to living with technology in their homes. Retailers understand the benefits of giving somewhat human looks to the bots. Giant worked with its technology partners to make sure Marty has appeal. The robot is billed as the “one with the googly eyes.”

Of course, it’s possible to imagine thorny scenarios in the future, such as for a retailer that uses the store as a fulfillment center. One industry executive recently said to me, “What happens when a customer and a robot are both fighting it out for the last item on the shelf in a certain category?”

If that does happen, hopefully both human and robot will realize the humor and irony in that situation, and maybe even bond a little.

David Orgel is an award-winning business journalist, industry expert and speaker. He currently is the principal of David Orgel Consulting, delivering strategic content and counsel to the food, retail and CPG industries. To read last month’s column, click here.