Skip to main content

How Robots are Transforming Retail


The retail industry has reached a point of progress with robotics where it is not enough to look at how robots will drive business transformation, but at how they are already doing so.

Following are three key retail areas where robots have already begun to make their presence felt:

Fulfillment and Distribution

Many of the manual picking, packing and sorting activities that occur in distribution and fulfillment centers are undergoing robotic automation. Amazon purchased robot manufacturer Kiva Systems in 2012 and has since deployed 15,000 robots in 10 next-generation fulfillment centers throughout the U.S. Robots perform tasks including bringing items off shelves and out of bins to human employees for faster picking and packing.

In addition, Hudson’s Bay Company has announced plans for robotic automation of a distribution center in Toronto. Furthermore, delivery drones and self-driving vehicles will inevitably take over many delivery functions currently performed by humans.

So far, retailers have mainly used robots to make fulfillment and distribution more efficient and cost-effective, without seriously reducing the number of human workers involved. But as robotic technology may eventually reduce the number of people employed in retail distribution jobs by a significant percentage.

Customer Service

The idea of robots greeting and assisting customers as they enter a store may seem even more like something out of a Sci-Fi thriller than robots performing manual warehouse duties, but it’s starting to happen.

One well-publicized example of robotic customer service is a pilot Lowe’s has been running at its Orchard Supply Hardware subsidiary. Robots assist customers in finding specific products and obtaining real-time information on promotions and inventory levels. They also remotely connect with expert employees to answer project questions.

And anyone who has attended the NRF “Big Show” in New York in the past few years has seen a wide assortment of robotic helpers patrolling the expo floor. Current customer service robots are mostly limited to helping customers with basic tasks or providing remote access to human associates.

However, artificial intelligence and machine learning should be able to produce robots that can engage in natural language conversations with consumers to address their deeper needs in the not-too-distant future. Presumably robots will also become more human in appearance and behavior, as well. This means that like fulfillment center robots, customer service robots may start replacing human customer service associates over time.

Store Inventory

Robots are not only useful for helping manage inventory on the back end. Bossa Nova Robotics, which recently received $14 million in investment funding, is piloting autonomous retail robots that perform real-time inventory analysis for improved shelf stocking. The robots operate alongside store employees and can maneuver around browsing customers

In addition, according to Justin Patton, director of the Auburn University RFID Lab, retailers can use robots equipped with RFID readers to simplify the process of counting store inventory.

“You let it rip in the store at night and scan everything,” Patton said in an interview with Retailing Today's sister publication, Chain Store Age.

All of these developments are already allowing retailers to operate more efficiently and save money. The prospect of staff reductions means robotic returns could be much greater in the future, although retailers must be careful not to “dehumanize” the shopping experience. We do not yet know exactly how robots will transform retail, but we know the transformation is happening.

This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds