The Candid Voice in Retail Technology: Objective Insights, Pragmatic Advice

Robots Are Not The Answer To Store Challenges

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I love robots. In my spare time, I coach a high school robotics team. Robots are what will get us to Mars and on asteroids and inside volcanoes and to the depths of the ocean. They have an important place in industry too, accomplishing repetitive tasks with a high degree of precision and consistency.

But I just can’t understand the fascination of robots in stores. Especially when we’re talking customer-facing interactions. You want to have a robotic retrieval of goods for in-store pickup? Okay. But I still don’t really see how you get away with not having that staffed, or at least someone quickly on call to prevent click-rage if something goes wrong.

Can you get away with cashierless checkout? Sort of. I mean, even self-checkout stands have a one staff member to four pod ratio for monitoring those machines. And I’ve still been stuck with plenty of rage-clicking (or rage-tapping of the touchscreen) when the machine freezes up or tells me I haven’t added something to the bagging area when I plainly have.

I also spent too much of my retail career dealing with the “store reality distortion field”, which really just describes what happens to technology when you toss it inside a store. Putting any technology in a store is like giving a toddler your phone while asking them to finger paint and eat a cup of applesauce on a platform ten feet off the ground (assume the toddler is secured and can’t fall). You’re really not going to want that phone back, assuming it’s in any way functioning when you get it back.

So I keep hearing all these pronouncements about how robots are going to revolutionize the retail store – save it, even. There were lots of those made at NRF. There have been lots of predictions of the rise of retail robots in stores, even before Amazon opened up its Go store this week.

But here’s the value equation I’m still trying to figure out. Yes, you get rid of cashiers and a couple of staff who used to run the in-store order pickup desk. But don’t you (or some third party service provider) have to replace them with the team monitoring the fulfillment robot? And the cashierless stations? Don’t you need a few people around or nearby who have the capability to troubleshoot, maintain, and fix all this tech in stores? And don’t you also need to provide more front-end assistance to customers – to help educate them or provide customer service or assistance in understanding product options and selection? You know, the people you can’t find today because they’re either not staffed at all, or stuck behind a register ringing sales?

I can’t see a future for stores where higher-skilled “sales” people and customer service people are not part of the equation – otherwise, why bother at all? Just turn the store into a giant vending machine and be done with it. You don’t even need loss prevention if you do that.

But then, why should consumers go to that store at all? There’s no point. There’s nothing there that is fundamentally different than buying online and having Uber bring it home for you. And if that is the consumer response to all this automation in stores, it’s really a case of retailers shooting themselves in the foot, because shifting more spending to online only further erodes the economic model of stores, while driving spending to the lower-margin channel that has higher costs to fulfill. It just doesn’t make sense.

Robots in stores, to me, seems like a proposition that completely devalues what the store has to offer – an experience. A sense of community. Entertainment. Education. Service. Engagement. I just don’t see how robots make that possible – unless you talk about robots in the context of a new staffing and service model for stores, one that replaces low-skill, low-pay jobs with yes, fewer, but also higher-skill, higher-pay jobs. And I still don’t see how that ultimately nets an ROI, not when you just end up shifting the money you saved on labor into automation maintenance, even before you start investing in higher-skilled workers.

Is it just a fascination with “the future” that keeps people going on about robots in retail? Has anyone really thought this through, from a total net impact on the business perspective? Because as much as I love robots, I just don’t get it in retail.

If you’d like to read our take on how to fix the employee challenges in stores, read our eBook on the topic: Four Steps To A 21st Century Workforce.


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Articles & Opinions January 23, 2018
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