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The retailer’s path to becoming bionic

retail technology

The Six Million Dollar Man was a television series popular in the 1970s. It tells the story of Steve Austin, former astronaut and now a test pilot, who crashes and is rebuilt with bionic capability.

Merriam-Webster defines bionic as “having normal biological capability or performance enhanced by electronic or electromechanical devices.” As we look about the industry, we can see the emergence of a new retail species—the bionic retailer.

Look across the retail enterprise today and you’ll find a mosaic of automation deployed. What more are Walmart’s hyper-automated distribution centers than “normal biological capability enhanced by electromechanical devices?” Symbotic’s automation technology enhances and replaces what has been biological (human) capability—slotting pallets, picking orders, loading trucks—with artificially intelligent robots. In a sense, this is the retail equivalent of Steve Austin’s
bionic arm.

More and more food production is being handled by robotics, everything from bread baking to salad making to Chipotle’s avocado prep robot designed to increase production of guacamole;
in reality these are bionic replacements of what was human activity. Computer vision systems that support cashier-free shopping like Amazon’s Just Walk Out, or Focal AI’s computer vision shelf monitoring, or Simbe’s shelf-scanning robots, are the retail equivalent of Austin’s bionic

The retail industry is transforming right before our eyes, and yet many do not understand what is emerging. Retail executives are heads-down, focused on the tactical demands of the dynamic retail industry—the day-to-day issues they have been dealing with for years. And many are doing good things as they work to keep up, deploying automation in distribution centers, AI-powered marketing capabilities, micro fulfillment centers, and much more. But few have the time to step back to fully realize what’s being created.

Bionic Cognition

Life on Earth developed over millions of years, rising from the primordial soup. Single-cell organisms gave way to more complex life, and eventually that life rose from the sea to inhabit the land. For nearly two million years, multiple human-like species co-existed, none gaining any lasting advantage. But then, as Yuval Harari explains in his history-spanning book Sapiens, around 70,000 years ago a genetic mutation occurred, triggering a cognitive revolution that enabled Homo sapiens to quickly advance beyond all other species.

The retail industry is approaching a comparable “cognition event,” when the disparate technological capabilities being deployed across today’s retail enterprises are integrated—and connected—to a digital nervous system. As this happens, the Bionic Retail™ organization will quickly advance beyond slower, less intelligent, retail species. And this retail evolution is already underway, as companies like Walmart and Kroger accelerate the technological growth curve on their way to becoming bionic.

Don’t Crash

The emergence of the bionic retailer is underway. And those retailers that are too slow to act will be left behind. Slower-moving retailers will be at an increasing disadvantage, as leaders exploit the revenue gains and cost savings made available through tech innovation.

I’ll go further and say that many traditional retailers are like Steve Austin moments. Traditional retailers are riding high, coming off pandemic-powered sales and inflation-boosted margins. But
as we pass the inflection point on technology’s exponential growth curve, a swarm of innovation butterflies are about to be sucked into the jet engines and it’s not going to be pretty. Flameout is imminent.


Gary Hawkins

Gary Hawkins has been helping the retail industry create the future for over 25 years. As a retailer, he pioneered loyalty and shopper insights which, in turn, helped create and power the development of shopper marketing. His expansive industry view and early insight into disruptive technology makes him a sought-after keynote speaker at conferences in the U.S. and around the world.

Hawkins is the author of "Building the Customer Specific Retail Enterprise," "Customer Intelligence," "Retail in the Age of I," and "Bionic Retail," along with myriad articles and white papers. He can be reached at [email protected].

"Bionic Retail: How to Thrive in an Exponential World" will be published April 16.

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