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Robotics In The Store: How Much Of A Thing Is This Gonna Be?


Whenever we set out to study a whole new field of research here at RSR, we know we’re in for one thing: surprise. That’s the beauty of benchmarking a new topic – you get to find out what retailers really think about the buzz-worthy technology of the day.

And so in our recently-released, first-ever report on Robotics and Automation in retail, one of the first things that jumped out at us was the tremendous difference in perspective between how IT and Line of Business (LOB) executives view not only the value, but also the practical use-cases for robotics within retail operations. This vastly different viewpoint continues into stores, as well (Figure 1).

Figure 1: IT Sees More Value

Source: RSR Research, February 2020

In nearly all cases, IT professionals place higher value on the promises robotics designers are making for stores. In some areas these differences are notable. Take, for example, the fact that 64% ascribe high value to robotics-assisted systems to authenticate and correct shelf labels: that’s a significantly higher interest than LOB execs perceive. And IT is far more bullish on robots’ ability to help with receiving functions (72% compared to LOB’s 64%), cleaning (another 12% gap) and merchandise put-away. What does all this mean?

For starters, it would seem the more tech-dependent a member of a retail team may be, the more they see robotics being able to brighten their future. It also, however, points to a harsh reality: just because IT is excited about something doesn’t necessarily bring it into existence. For most of us, a visit to our local grocery or big box store currently reveals that the only in-store robotics the line of business has signed off on are for merchandise counting.

Still, though, the value proposition for all of these other retail functions is highly intriguing.

What’s Really Going On, Here?

When asked about the use of robotics in the store, the breakdown between IT and LOB only further solidifies. If these early indicators prove true, IT is not afraid to be testing multiple robotics-based pilots without either the knowledge – or the consent – of the Line of Business (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Sneaky? Just Misunderstood? Maybe A Little Bit Of Both

Source: RSR Research, February 2020

In an area of study this new (to retail, at least), the truth is there are multiple ways to explain the data in Figure 2. Maybe LOB doesn’t consider certain automation technologies to fall under the “robotics” category, whereas IT professionals, ever eager to be on the edge of tech, are more likely to lump as many automated processes into the realm of robotics. It is also possible that LOB leaders are simply not aware of how much their IT department is truly doing with these next-gen tools. Again – with a field this new – that is entirely possible.

Time will only tell which of these explanations most aptly describes the current landscape. We’ll be eager to find that out when we conduct a follow-on benchmark piece next year. Our suspicion, however, is that time will reveal that in the early stages of 2020, a third scenario was really in play: IT folks had a series of skunkworks projects going on that were maybe not secretive, but certainly weren’t being advertised throughout the organization.

We invite everyone to read the full report, which is available for free here.

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Articles & Opinions April 14, 2020
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