2012.24 | Retail Robots

Robotic Store Staff – Carnegie Mellon has developed a robot for retailers to assist in validating stock outs and misplaced items in the store.  The autonomous device rolls through the store on its own and scans the shelves to validate locations of items and notify staff via iPads.  They have augmented that solution with some additional technology – a Google Streetview like view of the store showing where products are located on a large format digital sign.   The sign is augmented with product information should customers wish to view it – even trailers of DVDs on the shelves if they are interested.

This is a very ambitious undertaking and that team should be commended for their initiative.  There are a few hurdles for this team I can see with this type of solution based on my experience in retail:

  • I don’t know how the system works as far as where the robot moves in the store.  If it isn’t bumping into walls like my Roomba, or if the Kinect can’t recognize obstacles, it probably has a map of the store in memory somewhere.  Updating store layouts and planograms is a lot of work, and generally where wayfinding falls down.  I’m sure it’s relatively straightforward in one CMU bookstore that probably doesn’t change out their mugs and sweatshirts too much in any given cycle.   Try this in a specialty or apparel chain across hundreds of sites with varying floor plans and the potential to move store fixtures, and it becomes much more challenging.  There would need to be a tool to accommodate tweaks at sites to administer this to validate that the store information.  The challenge will be around local versus remote administration.  Local staff know the store layout but are probably not technical enough to update the map on the robot.  Remote staff can update the robot but won’t know the store.    Even better, let the robot figure it out autonomously – that’s the ultimate.
  • The Google Streetview kiosk layout is very interesting, but once again, stores and merchandise are constantly updated.  I’m finding Google Streetview is already getting out of date – the stores on the street have changed since the images were taken.  I don’t always trust it now.  Same goes for a store.  The product changes, the store changes.  There needs to be a constant update mechanism.  Even if the product is shown in the right place on the Streetview interface, users will think that the view is different and become confused.  It’s the updates that kill solutions like this.
  • That User Interface on the digital sign had a lot going on.  I’m sure a great deal of thought went into it, and it looked great, but it has to be so easy that my mom can use it in front of a half dozen spectators with some product under her arm.  Keep what the solution does as simple as possible.  It’s not an app on a mobile device for users with time on their hands and lots of buttons to push.
  • Finding a product is more of an art than a science.  That’s why people are preferred to machines so far.  Describing product is harder than it sounds.  Examples on product search are always something easy like a CMU mug.  When a customer comes to search for something in the store, it could be a specific brand and easy to search on.  More often, it might be that lavender shirt with the grey buttons – do you have it in size 4?  While customers will walk up to a screen with no other options, they will prefer to deal with a real person.  It’s always easier to walk up to someone and ask.  Voice activated or image based search and validation would be terrific – ideally it could ask the customer some questions to narrow down the items and then show pictures of the product to validate what the customer is looking for, and then where it is in the store.  If not available, allow online order and ship.  Another option?  Let the robot provide directions to the product. If they could walk faster, having the robot lead there would be incredible.
  • iPad notifications are useful, but without followup, it doesn’t mean anything.  The solution should ensure that staff are notified and prompted to action.  If no update is made, then there should be automatic escalations to management.  Would also be great if the solution would indicate if product that should be on the shelf is in stock in the store or not.  The system could prompt re-ordering for outages.

All technology solutions have challenges. Tying the solutions into the operations without impacting store staff’s ability to get their jobs done is what will make or break any retail technology solution.   This is a very interesting idea with lots of potential.  I hope it gets built  out and there is interest from retailers.

Restaurant Robots – A restaurant in China has opened with robotic staff.  The robots actually usher in customers, cook food and serve.  They are also anthropomorphic and candy coloured to impress the children.  Given the cost of the robots, and the fact that this is likely not an automat – but requires human intervention, I would expect that the food is relatively expensive.  Biggest unanswered question – what do you tip a robot?

Robot Model for Fit – Purchasing clothing online can be convenient, but fit is always a factor.  Sizes can vary widely by clothing brand.  For those shopping for clothing online, the practice of purchasing a couple of sizes and just returning the ones that don’t fit at no charge has become common.  While a convenience to the shopper, it is a rising overhead cost for retailers.  In an attempt to reduce returns based on fit, fits.me, an Estonian company has developed a robot which can change its shape to fit clothing, and then provide measurements across thousands of points for each garment.  When a customer enters their measurements, and selects a garment, it shows how the item would fit their body.  This could allow online shoppers to have a better idea of how clothing will look and fit on their body – ideally reducing returns.

Android Salesperson/Actress – In order to push some extra sales for Valentine’s Day, Takishimiya’s Tokyo store turned to a real android.  Last February, an eerily realistic robot sat in a display case using her android phone and passing the time.   Straddling the line between mannequin and real life model, the robot reacts to its surroundings to provide lifelike responses to those around her.   While a novelty at present, you could see a hyper-realistic android catching on as a way to fully demonstrate products – show how easy it is to move and stretch in athletic apparel perhaps.

Other Important Retail Robots to Remember:

Kiva Systems – Amazon owned Inventory Picking Robot system – link from 2009 Post .

PAL robots – Used in Abu Dhabi Mall.

2011.39 | Retail Linkdump

Robots at the Mall – Everyone loves robots, and malls in Abu Dhabi may soon be leveraging robots as service ambassadors.  The humanoid robots built by Barcelona based PAL Robotics  have touch screens built into their chests, cameras in their heads to allow them to recognize users, and wheels to allow them to drive around.  Instead of printing a map to a location in a large mall or hospital, the robots can lead you there.  Make sure you watch the video.  Very iRobot.

No Branch Banking 2.0 – While there were a few Internet only banks floating around with the first Internet bubble, one still needed a card to get cash at some point.  With our new mobile reality, Movenbank is offering a cardless banking experience based on the web and Android NFC mobile devices.

Mobile Phone Recycler ATM – While I’ve heard of kiosks to recycle old technology in the past, ecoATM now sports a camera to identify your old mobile device so you can get a quote on the spot.  via PSFK

eBay Mobile Image Search – 2d Barcodes are too unwieldly for many – or so it seems.  How about taking a picture of something you like with your mobile phone camera, and having your mobile look for that item on sale on eBay based on the image?   eBay recently announced that the eBay mobile app will have this capability in the mobile app by the end of the year.

Ikea Happy to Bed Campaign – Ikea’s recent online campaign makes use of a fancy Youtube trick, an interface to Facebook, and some input from the user to provide a very personalized shopping experience.  Make sure you watch the whole video.  You are somehow convinced to build a shopping list without knowing what was happening.

2009.06 | Linkedin | Consistency | Think Different

Linkedin is Useful – Social networking isn’t just about showing off how many friends you have..well,actually yes it is, but Linkedin also has a very useful Companies feature that shows most popular contacts, new hires and career paths for each organization. Beyond a way of seeing where your friends move, it’s a great tool to obtain up to date information about the best contacts for new ideas, and a way for vendors and buyers to avoid cold calls.

A Consistent Customer Experience – The importance of a consistent experience and brand across channels is becoming increasingly important in Canada. With point of service already well established, the internet and mobile channels continue to grow. For the first time a majority of Canadians bank online – 53% in Q4 2008 – 35% of them use the Internet as their primary channel, followed by ATMs at 28% and in person transactions at 24%.

While retail probably will not go that far, 53% demands attention from retailers, and habit and comfort with these channels is likely to drive consumers towards them for retail as well. As digital natives age, they will demand it. 84% of Canadians now use the internet, and broadband subscribers continue to grow with 27.9 broadband subscribers per 100 inhabitants; making Canada the leader in the G7.

More surprising is the opportunity around mobile. Only 61.6% of Canadians have a mobile phone – the lowest of any developed country. This represents a market of 20 million people that is only going to grow and become increasingly sophisticated as smart phones permeate the market. NCR is well placed to help our clients serve these customers across all channels with solutions like SelfServ Checkout, Advanced Marketing, and Mobile Refactoring and can provide some insight into the benefits of this multi-channel consistency.

Think Different – New ideas in today’s economy is what is needed to weather the storm. Simple changes always seem obvious after the fact, but are more difficult to pinpoint than you think. A few standouts include: rethinking the cereal box, shelf moving robots, mobile reviews, RFID ad activation, subscribing to consumable products and the $300 million button. Simple.

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