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The robots are coming...to your mall

Have you visited your local mall lately? You might have noticed new technologies starting to seamlessly integrate into your shopping trip, such as beacons pushing customized information to your phone and apps that help you remember where you parked. But the most recent wave of technology is the most exciting yet: Robots are coming to a mall near you.

The robot's potential on the front lines of retail is limitless and soon, it will be difficult to imagine a visit to the local mall without them. Beside the fact that we're now one step closer to living out the sci-fi fantasies of our youth by interacting and co-existing with real, functioning robots, there are numerous reasons robots are enhancing the shopping center experience. They add a new dimension to the way customers shop by providing more responsive and informative assistance, they help keep shopping centers competitive in the always-on landscape and they offer meaningful services to both consumers and shopping center employees.

Here are three reasons we need robots at the mall:

A PAL Robotics robot serving as mall ambassador.
Source: PAL Robotics
A PAL Robotics robot serving as mall ambassador.

1. Shoppers are tech savvy and there is no turning back. They have already shown their desire for a more tech-integrated experience through their adoption of new channels and tools such as customer-service texting and interactive online maps. A survey from Accenture found that 57 percent of consumers want to receive real-time promotions on their device while shopping in-store and 45 percent of millennials welcome the idea of a personal shopper who can pull items for them by knowing their style, fit and wardrobe details. It's no longer a matter of whether shoppers use technology, but rather how they use it.

Consumers are welcoming the robot because they recognize its ability to enhance their overall shopping experience. Robotic technology gives shoppers more flexibility, efficiency and a fun way to approach shopping. For example, in San Jose, customers at Orchard Supply Hardware, a Lowe's Company, are no longer chasing down store attendants to get help navigating the store to find a specific tool or to receive expert advice. Instead, they are turning to a new team of robots, the OSHbots, which are programmed to greet customers, lead them to an item they are searching for and provide additional insight and information about their hardware needs.

And at a shopping mall in China, a smiling robot is running the whole show at a local ice creamery, dishing out ice cream to customers looking for a sweet treat. Customers simply submit their ice cream and topping preference through a computer and watch as the robot creates a delectable snack.

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2. Provide a leg up on the competition. The rise of the robot at the shopping center isn't good news only for consumers — management companies and retailers are also leveraging their capabilities and benefits to improve business strategy and bolster bottom lines. For example, RFSpot Pro robots are enhancing Tesco's inventory management. The six-foot tall robots roam Tesco stores using RFID technology and in just one hour (manual scans previously took seven to eight hours), paint a clear picture of what items are in the store. This swift inventory capture means Tesco has more time to conduct in-depth analysis of the data to understand, in real time, the status of their store, and create and implement solutions to resolve any problems.

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3. Offer a meaningful service. Shopping centers around the country provide an excellent place for families and friends to come together to spend quality time while experiencing all the mall has to offer. Beyond store-navigation capabilities, consumers are looking to the robot for some of the most basic assistance at the shopping mall – carrying purchases. Instead of having to push or carry a cart, robots like Budgee now follow customers around like a trusted friend, always a few feet away to help schlep goods from store to store so that consumers can enjoy their shopping experience without the burden of heavy loads.

Robots also assist shopping centers with the grittier, more dangerous tasks of keeping stores and customers safe. Knightscope's K5 robots are helping security guards and police do their jobs more efficiently and safely by collecting video, audio and text data to pre-empt crimes from happening. Robots run license plates, monitor for strange movements and noises and generally assess the mall landscape to call attention to any abnormal variables that may pose a threat to shoppers. As alerts are raised, human security guards then take appropriate measures to manage the situation.

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While robotics and new technologies at the shopping center will never surpass the benefits of human touch and exemplary customer service, they are clearly amplifying and ushering in a new dimension to the shopping experience. This is only the beginning of high tech and innovation and we cannot wait for the future to see what is in store for the shopping center.

Commentary by Mike Kercheval, president and CEO of the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC).