Exclusive Q&A: Retailers deploy robots across the enterprise

Dan Berthiaume
Senior Editor, Technology
David Pinn
David Pinn, CEO, Brain Corp.

Autonomous robots are becoming an increasingly important part of retailers’ technology infrastructure.

Chain Store Age recently spoke with David Pinn, CEO of automation and robotics company Brain Corp., about how retailers can gain benefit from leveraging autonomous robots in their operations and what 2024 holds in store for retail robotics.

How are retailers using autonomous robots in store?

Retailers are increasing efficiency by automating repetitive, tedious, and error-prone tasks. This marks a substantial transformation from roughly five years ago, when robots were virtually nonexistent in stores. 

Today, thousands of retail locations globally have integrated autonomous robots, leveraging their capabilities to enhance various aspects of stores, allowing staff to refocus on more valuable responsibilities. 

Floor care is a great example, where robots efficiently clean the store's floor space daily. This not only ensures a consistently well-maintained environment but also liberates several hours for retailers to allocate towards other crucial tasks that may have been challenging to consistently address before.

Another emerging use of autonomous robots in retail involves data collection, specifically in inventory management. Traditional methods of manually tracking in-store inventory involve deploying multiple associates for extended periods to identify inventory inconsistencies. 

This resource-intensive and time-consuming process results in infrequent monitoring, often prone to errors due to the meticulous nature required when dealing with tens of thousands of products. This can lead to issues with on-shelf availability, price tag accuracy and locating products.

By employing robots for this task, retailers can automate the time-consuming and error-prone inventory tracking process, allowing for more frequent and accurate insights. This approach provides retailers with consistent and reliable data, empowering stores to operate with increased efficiency and productivity. 

The result is an improved overall experience for both associates and shoppers, as issues related to on-shelf availability, pricing accuracy and product location are minimized.

How are retailers using autonomous robots in the supply chain?

Retailers are actively transforming their inventory management strategies through the strategic implementation of automation, including autonomous robots within their supply chains. 

A pivotal point in this revolution is the integration of automation on the sales floor of stores. Traditionally, associates painstakingly identify inventory issues, a process prone to human error, resulting in unreliable data that can misguide the supply chain. 

Recognizing this challenge, retailers are turning to the deployment of inventory scanning robots that provide frequent and precise data, addressing the accuracy gap in the supply chain and enhancing the responsiveness of their operations.

The introduction of inventory scanning robots ensures a continuous flow of accurate information into the supply chain, effectively addressing challenges related to areas such as replenishment. 

By maintaining the right inventory levels in stores at all times, retailers mitigate the risks of under and over stocking, enhancing sales opportunities while also reducing inventory waste, thereby bolstering margins. 

How have customers and associates responded to the presence of robots?

Associates typically eagerly embrace the introduction of new gadgets, while customers are intrigued by encountering technology that is not a regular part of their shopping experience. The spectacle of autonomous robots undertaking tasks such as floor cleaning or inventory scanning has ignited curiosity and fascination. 

Customers approach these robots with a sense of intrigue, at times deliberately stepping in front of them multiple times to witness their seamless navigation and obstacle avoidance capabilities. 

This level of engagement underscores a positive reception, indicating that customers appreciate the innovative approach aimed at enhancing their shopping experience.

What are the emerging retail robotics trends for 2024?

I’ll briefly review three important ones. In 2024, we anticipate a notable surge in the deployment of inventory scanning robots. This trend is driven by the pressing need to address challenges associated with error-prone inventory management, labor shortages, and the increasing theft, which makes the data from POS systems less reliable. 

Retailers are recognizing the efficiency and accuracy that robotic systems bring to inventory tracking, ultimately streamlining operations and mitigating the errors associated with manual counting.

Another significant trend on the horizon is the seamless incorporation of omnichannel data collected by robots into the e-commerce landscape. As the deployment of inventory scanning robots increases in stores, retailers will be able to leverage the insights to enhance their responsiveness in fulfilling online shopper orders as well, picking the right store that can most closely fulfill the full order. 

This integration will optimize inventory levels and contributes to a more agile and customer-centric e-commerce experience.

Also in 2024, we anticipate further development of robots undertaking diverse tasks, from the efficient restocking of groceries on store shelves to facilitating seamless pickup processes outside the store. Furthermore, there's a foreseeable expansion in the scope of data collection applications that could include tasks such as identifying expiring food items or monitoring the temperatures of refrigerators and freezers. 

This broadening of robotic capabilities is geared towards addressing multifaceted aspects of the retail supply chain, fostering heightened efficiency and elevating the standard of customer service.

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