Robots move beyond warehouses, into retail stores

"Star Wars" droid toys will line store shelves this holiday season, but there's a different kind of robot you may see at some retailers: Chloe and Tally.

Simbe’s Tally robot being tested at an undisclosed store.
Source: Simbe Robotics

Amazon and others have made extensive use of robots in their warehouses to help package and ship orders, but a new generation of robots is graduating from the back end and moving into retail shops themselves.

Best Buy is testing a customer service robot named Chloe at a New York City store, and a San Francisco-based robotics firm is testing a machine named Tally to roam store aisles and check on inventory levels. Orchard Supply Hardware, a chain owned by Lowe's, is using a robot dubbed OSHbot at a San Jose-area store to help customers find items.

"We have had very positive results — both customers and employees love it," said Lowe's spokesperson Jenny Popis. "As an example, in the past six weeks we have had more than 1,000 searches on OSHbot, so there is great interest."

OSHbot lets customers type on its touch-screen menu to find a particular item they want, and then they can follow the robot to a shelf where the item is located. The robot, built by Silicon Valley's Fellow Robots, also sports LCDs on its back for advertising.

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Over the past year, Lowe's Innovation Labs has added features to the customer service robot, including Spanish translation, and an additional robot in the Orchard store has inventory tracking capabilities to assist employees. "For now, we are focusing on the one store and building out new features before we will decide to roll out to additional stores."

At Best Buy, the Chloe robot works within a larger system that features nine touch screens inside the store. The robot has an arm that retrieves items and drops them off to the customers who place orders at the touch screens. The system, a collaboration between the consumer electronics retailer and Shoreview, Minnesota-based PaR Systems, has two screens that are accessible outside of normal store hours.

"Chloe is a convenient, fun way for customers to shop for movies, music, pre-owned video games, headphones, accessories and more at our store" in New York City's Chelsea neighborhood, said Carly Charlson, a Best Buy spokesperson.

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The use of self-serve kiosks for customers to order is also growing in restaurants nationwide.

Panera Bread, the restaurant chain, is roughly halfway through rolling out its order and pay kiosks in company-owned stores as part of the company's Panera 2.0 initiative. Founder and CEO Ron Shaich said, "We'll complete most of the system by the end of next year." Shaich insisted the program was not designed to cut jobs, adding that customers will still have the option to interact with a human at a register and to get their food delivered to tables. "We are taking the labor we're saving plus additional labor we're investing to actually create more capacity in the cafe — and the ability to take up more volume, and also offer up a higher-quality guest experience."

That said, experts predict that robots and robotics in general are likely to take over a lot of jobs now held by people.

Up to half of jobs could be replaced in 20 years by robots or computerization, and jobs in the retail sector are at risk, according to research from the University of Oxford and a recent "Robot Revolution" report from Bank of America Merrill Lynch. These include some of the lowest-paying jobs in the economy, including salespersons, cashiers and other retail positions.

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"The trend is worrisome in markets such as the U.S., because many of the jobs created in recent years are low-paying, manual or services jobs which are generally considered 'high risk' for replacement," the BofA Merrill Lynch report stated.

Industrial robotics are already widespread in distribution centers operated by brick-and-mortar grocers, and in 2012 online retailer Amazon paid $770 million for Kiva Solutions, a warehouse automation company known for making robots. Amazon uses robots to drive forklifts and to retrieve items.

"We're at the precipice of a robotics revolution," said Brad Bogolea, co-founder and CEO of Simbe Robotics, the start-up behind the Tally robot. "Where we are today is very similar to the early days of mobile phones or personal computing where applications are just starting to become more ubiquitous in different sectors."

Tally automates the auditing and analysis of on-shelf product availability — essentially doing in about 30 minutes a task that takes 25 man hours, according to the company. The robot's first test was at an undisclosed store in Northern California, and Simbe's CEO said the company is "currently in discussions for a much larger pilot project with a number of major retailers.