Steve Carlin, VP and general manager of SoftBank Robotics, spoke with Chain Store Age about how robots are helping to reinvent the in-store shopping experience.
What trends are advancing interest in robot technology at the store level?
A few trends have helped set the stage for in-store robotics.
As online retailers continue to grab customer wallet-share, there is mounting pressure on physical stores to remain both profitable and relevant. Meanwhile, with the influx of technology into the everyday lives of consumers, shoppers seek and expect new and interesting experiences at the stores where they want to spend their time and money. This is exacerbated by gadgets like smartphones, Apple TV, Amazon Echo and Google Home that make it increasingly easy and natural for shoppers to interact with devices.
Another trend is the need to track customer demographics more closely, and most importantly, in real time. The right data — and analytics — can help a retailer better understand customer preferences and quickly change a brand message or experience accordingly.
How important is the interaction between robots and humans, from both customer-facing and workforce perspectives?
When a business is considering robots to engage with their customers, the form factor is half of the experience. The other half is the message that robots relay to the consumer. If those are aligned, then the experience is seamless and the customer is ready for more.
From a workplace perspective, robots are not here to take jobs but to support their human colleagues. By taking on low-level tasks, robots allow colleagues to work at a higher level.
In addition to communicating a specific brand message, as robots evolve, they could eventually be connected to a company’s cloud-based system, like Microsoft Azure. This integration would allow robots to answer questions like product availability, size and color, which alleviates the sales associate from researching those questions, and allows them to more deeply engage the customer.
How could a disruptor such as robots significantly change the retail business?
The future of retail will be driven by direct, real-time brand engagement. Called the next platform after mobile, robots will revolutionize the in-store experience and shake up the way businesses develop their marketing strategies.
Retailers are eager to use technologies that add personalization to their brand while creating opportunities for deeper interactions with customers. By increasing direct customer engagement through robotics, marketing messages can be honed or changed at any time, and those engagements can be tracked and analyzed.
Where should retailers be looking for a return on investment when deploying robots?
With our robot, Pepper, there’s incredible upside when utilizing its functionality as a brand ambassador or sales support. Among our current retail partners, the most important features of Pepper are its form factor and its ability to attract and engage with customers who otherwise might not have shopped in their store. In recent U.S. pilot programs, Pepper has increased foot traffic, customer engagement and, ultimately, sales across various retail locations.
Retailers exploring the concept of integrating robotics into their brick-and-mortar stores will be able to mix real-time customer insight, CRM data, social selling, in-store promotion, and, most importantly, brand engagement into one strategy, with the power to truly impact their bottom line.
How can SoftBank Robotics help retailers pursue their robotic endeavors?
The social robotics space is in its infancy, and retailers are currently exploring best-in-class technology to enhance their in-store experience. Robots, such as Pepper, can help retailers increase sales, while improving the customer journey and in-store experience.
We provide an intuitive solution to allow retailers to customize their needs into a user-friendly application on Pepper without a deep knowledge in application development or coding. Applications can engage, inform or attract customers based on the retailer’s knowledge of their target demographic and be A/B tested to further fine tune the experience.
Tell me about your robot, Pepper?
Pepper was developed specifically for customer engagement. The 4-foot tall robot has arms, hands and fingers that gesticulate just like a human would during a conversation. Its eyes are big and round, and appear to blink when it’s thinking or speaking, and it turns toward the person it is interacting with, making the experience personal. These features are key to engaging and entertaining shoppers.