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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Meet the robots transforming retail

AI-powered robots are heading to a supermarket near you, writes Red McKay

Red McKay

European Managing Director

Bossa Nova Robotics

Automation has been a catalyst for greater efficiency in warehousing, manufacturing and customer service for some time – so it stands to reason that the next frontier should be big-box supermarkets. In a sector notorious for low margins, price wars and ever-changing customer demand, retailers cannot afford to miss sales opportunities, nor see their bottom line hit by high costs and unnecessary wastage. Self-service technology, including on-the-go product scanning, has already been widely deployed in UK supermarkets looking to make their operations leaner, speed up payments and improve retail experiences. Yet such initiatives count for little if the shelves are not filled with the right products with plenty of availability.

Tackling the challenges around on-shelf inventory management is one reason why Walmart is rolling out Bossa Nova robots in 350 of its stores. UK and European retailers are also quick to recognise its commercial potential. This is no surprise, given that the tech allows them to extend the efficiencies they have already achieved elsewhere in the supply chain.

Some shoppers ask questions about the technology while children enjoy playful interactions with them

Before looking at the way these robots impact shopper behaviour, it is worth taking a moment to understand the technology behind them.

Measuring at just under two metres in height, the robots are fitted with a combination of artificial intelligence, computer vision and robotics technology. They are programmed to move autonomously around the store, capturing the product’s 2D image (and other identifiers) in real-time. Store managers receive this information in around 15 minutes so they can make decisions to order more stock, amend pricing or task shop floor teams with replenishing stock on the shelves. 

Manual stocktakes, undertaken when the store is closed are notoriously time-consuming and expensive. Anyone working in the FMCG sector knows the urgency associated with getting products on the shelves as quickly as possible to capitalise on consumer demand.

Capable of scanning 60 linear foot aisles in just 90 seconds with accuracy levels of around 94 percent, the robots were developed to address precisely these issues. With extra time to spend connecting with customers and merchandising, this means employees are therefore likely to derive more satisfaction from their work. Any move to streamline store operations should, of course, also benefit customers by enhancing their shopping experience.

As in-store robots become increasingly common in public-facing environments, shoppers are naturally curious. Based on our experiences working in the US, some shoppers ask questions about the technology while children enjoy playful interactions with them. However, people actually pay little attention to them once they understand their purpose: they’re extremely quiet and the compact ‘robot body’ makes them discreet and approachable. 

As the technology transforms store operations, it’s also enhancing customer experiences by ensuring products are on shelves when people are looking for them. This limits the chances of them departing empty-handed and frustrated. Shoppers can also expect enquiries to be dealt with promptly because store teams no longer have to spend time on mundane tasks and can be more engaged with customers.

Operating in a competitive landscape, FMCG retailers are continually evolving. By combining the technological with the human, the big supermarkets have the power to deliver outstanding customer experiences that fundamentally promote sales and long-term brand loyalty.

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