When most executives think about the role of robots in improving the customer experience they tend to think about Robotic Process Automation (RPA). RPA takes fairly repetitive processes, such as managing a loyalty database, and automates them. We might call the system robotic, but RPA is often just software advisors doing specific tasks over and over again.

RPA might not feature ‘real’ robots, but retail is one industry where real devices recognisable as robots are becoming an important tool beyond just process automation alone. In fact there are many specific areas of the retail customer experience where robots are already being used or are being tested.

  • Warehouse logistics: last year Target added robots to one of their biggest distribution centres in California. Now the robots can autonomously stack and move boxes around in the warehouse and keep track of where everything has been stored.
  • Fulfilment: the Hudson’s Bay department store company in Ontario is using the Perfect Pick system at their main fulfilment centre. The system is the height of a warehouse and spans 16 aisles. It can hold over a million individual items and any request for a product can be delivered inside 30 seconds using small robots that bring the items to the operator.
  • In-store product selection: when you want to offer more products to customers than it is possible to display. For example, the Best Buy store in Manhattan features a robotic selection system allowing customers to use a screen to select from over 15,000 products such as DVDs, CDs, and games. The products are delivered to the customer as if they are using a giant vending machine.
  • Customer greeting: the famous Pepper robot designed by SoftBank has been proposed as a solution for customer greeting, answering customer questions, and even keeping people company in care homes. SoftBank proved the power of Pepper by running a phone store last year in Tokyo where customers were only assisted by Pepper.
  • Guiding customers: the Lowe’s home improvement chain has a record of innovation and they are already testing a robot called the Lowebot. It greets customers at the store entrance and if the customer asks for a specific product it can take them to the correct in-store location and provide product information.

The use of robots in retail might seem futuristic, but these are all areas where robotics is already in use. There are many developing areas where robots could be deployed in future. Tracking inventory and stock levels on store displays is a good example. Fashion retailers have found tools like RFID useful for this, but in a supermarket environment it’s harder to keep track of individual tins of food or bottles on shelves. Retailers, such as Target, are testing robots that can walk the aisles checking stock levels and ordering shelf stockers to replenish the missing items.

Almost all these robotic initiatives have a direct impact on CX. Whether it is ensuring that a delivery can be fulfilled faster or helping the customer to find a product in-store even when they cannot find a member of staff, these initiatives make the retail experience smoother and faster. Although many of these ideas and experiments are still hidden away in warehouses, I think the robots are coming in-store to a retail brand near you soon! What do you think of the potential of bots in customer service? Leave a comment below and let me know, or get in touch on LinkedIn.