"Hello, I'm NAVii. How can I help you?" This is how the store associate of the future may greet you.
Starting in the fall, Lowe's shoppers in the San Francisco Bay Area will be greeted by autonomous robots. The LoweBot speaks multiple languages, and will be deployed to 11 stores to help guide home improvers to find items in store.
"This is a response to things people wanted since retail began, but up until now there just wasn't the technology to be able to make that happen," said Kyle Nel, executive director of Lowe's Innovation Labs.
The robots, made by Fellow Robots, use a 3-D scanner to detect people as they into stores. Shoppers can search for items by asking the bot what they want or typing items into a touch screen. The bot can guide them to those items using smart laser sensors, similar to the technology used in autonomous vehicles, said Marco Mascorro, chief executive officer of Fellow Robots.
As customers follow the bots to find items on store shelves, location-based special offers show up on a second screen on the back of the LoweBot.
The LoweBot is the younger sibling of the OSHBot, an earlier version which Lowe's tested in Orchard Supply Hardware stores over the past two years. The most surprising query OSHBot had to deal with? "Where are the restrooms?" said Nel.
The LoweBot is not a fancy looking device with a lot of bells and whistles. Its role is to find solutions to consumers' most basic problems, said Nel.
"The LoweBot solves and serves our common cold problems," he said. "When I walk into a store and I want to know where something is I want to know right then — I don't want to have to download an app — a robot can really help with that."
The LoweBot also scans shelves using computer vision to send up-to-date information to store associates, even while it is showing people around the store. Inventory tracking may seem mundane and boring, but is incredibly important to a retailer, said Nel.
It never calls out sick and doesn't need to take coffee breaks. That said, the goal is to augment the work of store associates and free them up to work on advising customers on products and delivering a more personalized service overall, not replace them, said Nel. For example, the LoweBot can serve as a translator, since it is impossible to find store workers who understand every customer, he said.
Could the LoweBot one day eliminate jobs? "Most definitely not — my phone doesn't make me obsolete," said Nel.
"Having had this in stores for two years, I was shocked at how fast customers and store associates got used to it," he said.
— This story has been updated to clarify the type of technology that the LoweBot uses.