Robots eyeing up retail

Published on the 19/02/2020 | Written by Jonathan Cotton

Robots in retail

Ready or not, it’s a bold new retail age of AI, automation and robotics…

Digital transformation has never been easy. While good intentions are plentiful, actually operationalising those grand designs can be a different matter: From skill shortfalls to out of date systems and processes, there’s a lot that can go wrong.

But for hardworking retailers, those barriers are now beginning to fall, says Gartner, and as the technology matures, it’s becoming easier for them to balance the demands of digital transformation with the day-to-day priority of keeping the lights on.

Choosing the right candidate, whether man or machine, will be the new challenge for business.

So much so that Gartner is now predicting that within five years the robot invasion of retail will be well underway, with retailers around the world establishing robot resources to work alongside – and manage – nonhuman workers.

“The adoption of new digital technologies and the ever-changing expectations of customers continues to challenge traditional retailers, forcing them to investigate new-human hybrid operational models, including artificial intelligence, automation and robotics” says Kelsie Marian, senior research director at Gartner.

For beleaguered retail CIOs, customer experience is the new currency and to provide that, robots need to work alongside traditional fleshy employees, especially in on-demand and predictive capacities.

“This means the robot will have to ‘mesh’ with the human team – essentially meaning that both sides will need to learn how to ‘collaborate’ to operate effectively together,” says Marian.

It’s a new era of human/robotic collaboration says Gartner, in its Predicts 2020: Consumers Determine Retail Success Well Before the Sale paper, which finds retailers embracing the robotic possibilities, and more than three quarters planning to deploy AI in some fashion by 2021.

“Tight labour markets and disruptive technologies have caused retailers to investigate new human-machine hybrid operational models,” says Robert Hetu, VP, analyst retail, Gartner.

“These models are built on the foundation of AI and automation technologies to assist human workers in streamlining and optimising efficiency and accuracy in tasks such as warehouse picking, inventory management and customer services to boost productivity.”

Indeed, Gartner finds the deployment of robotics for warehouse picking – the expensive and labour-intensive process where items are ‘picked’ from warehouse shelves and packaged for shipment to customers – as the number one future use case for retail.

And in these new hybrid environments, choosing the right candidate, whether man or machine, will be the new challenge for business, requiring HR, IT and the line-of-business hiring managers to come together to identify the skills needed for ‘the pair’ to work together effectively, says Gartner.

The research company offers the example of an autonomous robotic kitchen assistant that can learn its operator’s specific recipes and prepare them in harmony with the operator, who is, in turn, freed up to concentrate on adapting to changing consumer tastes and providing that ever important CX.

It will be the responsibility of businesses to put in place the governance that ensures people and robots can effectively collaborate, with retailers establishing units within the organisation for procuring, maintaining, training, taxing, decommissioning and proper disposal of robot resources, says the research company.

“Retail CIOs must provide ongoing maintenance and monitoring performance for effectiveness,” says Marian. “If not, the team may be counterproductive and lead to a bad customer experience.”

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