Help Wanted: Robots to Fill Service Jobs

Apr 10, 2013

In the not too distant future when retail executives talk about front line employees being their company’s most important asset, they may be referring to workers of the robotic type.

Robotic technology has made significant leaps in recent years and robots are becoming adept at carrying out complex tasks typically been done by humans.

A case in point is Baxter from Rethink Robotics. According to the company’s website, Baxter, which is currently used in manufacturing settings, "performs a variety of repetitive production tasks — all while safely and intelligently working next to people. … Baxter exhibits behavior-based ‘common sense,’ capable of sensing and adapting to its task and its environment."

A major selling point beyond performing tasks correctly is the price ($22,000) of putting Baxter to work. Later this year, according to The Fiscal Times, Rethink Robotics will launch a new software platform that will allow Baxter to handle even more complex tasks. It is also going to make a kit available to developers to create more applications for Baxter.

Scott Eckert, CEO of Rethink Robotics, told The Fiscal Times that developers are "are going to do all sorts of stuff we haven’t envisioned." Among the stuff robots could be doing in the future is working in food service and retail stores.

"Could [Baxter] be a barista?" Mr. Eckert asked. "It’s not a target market, but it’s something that’s pretty repeatable. Put a cup in, push a button, espresso comes out, etc. There are simple repeatable service tasks that Baxter could do over time."

Rod Brooks, chief technology officer at Rethink, doesn’t see Baxter as a replacement for human workers but handling tasks side by side with them. "Lots of jobs need doing," he told AllThingsD in an interview in February. "I am scared we won’t have enough robots."

What roles will robots play in retail in the future? How long, outside of warehouse operations, before robots are a factor in the retailing industry?

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17 Comments on "Help Wanted: Robots to Fill Service Jobs"

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Ken Lonyai

“Robots” is a relative term with an open ended definition. Many automated devices are now being classified as robots (like Rumba) possibly because it’s sexier than saying something like “automated vacuum.” Humanoid robots are in large scale development, particularly in Japan, but to my knowledge they are not envisioned as automaton workers for retail.

So before we get too carried away thinking about humanoid robots placing cups in espresso machines, working a deep fryer, and punching keys on a register, let’s remember that these functions can be carried out through “non-robotic” automated machinery processes. Regardless of how one interprets the meaning of “robot” I think that in the coming years, labor unions, politicians, and activists will have more influence on the automation or lack of automation of FSR and retail than technology.

Ian Percy

There’s part of me that worries over a tide of ‘disconnection’ that seems to be rising into our lives. We email instead of talk. Banks try to keep customers away by telling them to go “online.” In the corporate speaker world there are endless seminars on how to do webinars so you don’t actually have to mingle with the audience. And on and on. All these examples revolve around ‘robotics’ when you think about it.

What we sacrifice to this tide of disconnection is chemistry; that mysterious spiritual connection that seems to make things matter to each other.

On the other hand if there is a mindless act that must be done precisely, in a sterile environment, in dangerous situations, without a break, without light and oxygen or whatever…let “Baxter” do it.

“Baxter?” We still feel compelled to give a machine a human name…and so we cling once again to chemistry.

Ron Margulis

I can easily see robots programmed to face the shelves in a grocery or drug store, restock replenishable apparel (underwear, socks, jeans, etc) in a department store and even reorganize the sections at a bookstore in the next 10-20 years. The hospitality/foodservice industry may have a lead on retail with the use of robots, replacing order takers and even cooks at fast food restaurants.

Don’t fear the loss of jobs to robots—someone will have to be around to repair and maintain them (until they develop a robot to do that).

Jason Goldberg

I know about automation of customer facing service tasks, but we’re clearly going to see Kiva style inventory automation reach the store shelf. To maximize inventory, most retailers will want to leverage their shelf edge inventory as part of their supply chain for at-home fulfillment (as Macy’s and others are now doing), and they will certainly want to automate the pick/pack/shipping functions in the store.

Once you have that level of automation in the store, you can imagine some fundamental store design changes that could result. We might see a reverse in the trend of eliminating storerooms and putting all inventory on the floor when an automated system can easily replenish “a 1 to show and 1 to go model” on the sales floor. We might see more cross-merchandising of the same SKU in different locations when I can easily know where every SKU is, and get any SKU in the hands of a shopper easily, etc….

I for one, welcome our new Retail Robotic overlords.

Dan Raftery

The barista application makes sense. So would something in the service deli or a robotic checkout bagger. Regarding other front-line positions, I think robotics needs to develop further and people need to get more exposure for that to work. Behind the scenes, I think the receiving dock would be a good early place to experiment.

Marge Laney
4 years 6 months ago

Want to see what the store of the future looks like with ‘robots’ in control? Check out the new clothing store in Seattle called Hointer that runs without people. Developed by a former VP at Amazon the store uses an opt-in Smartphone app and robotic technology to create the in-store experience.

The customer pain the store relieves is the fitting room experience. [Disclaimer: I run a fitting room solutions company.] The customer doesn’t have to schlep in and out of the fitting room looking for the right size or color or hope that a sales associate is around to help them. The customer is in control. They scan the items they want to try on and they appear in the fitting room marked especially for them. If they want to try on more items they can browse the available inventory via a tablet in the fitting room. Once they’re ready to check out they can complete the purchase on the tablet. Quick and easy, and oh yeah, cheap for the customer and the retailer.

Gene Hoffman
Gene Hoffman
4 years 6 months ago

Robots, in human form, already play a role in retail.

When I go into McDonald’s, a human robotic clerk takes my order and payment, another pushes buttons to prepare my preprocessed food, and another fills my tray accompaning it with advertising and nutritional data. Then I am all on my own to consume what’s there.

Such activities are convertible to non-human robotic delivery in retail processes in direct relation to continuing technological advancements and the intense expansions of government demands.

Zel Bianco

This is fun and innovative, but with so many Americans still out of work and struggling for jobs the idea is a bit chilling.

Rick Moss

One use for robots at retail that sounds promising is to check for out-of-stocks. The little guys can roll down aisles or meander around the showroom floor, using digital image recognition tech to compare what’s present against planograms. It’s a function that many short-handed store managers have trouble keeping up with, so robots could be a smart addition to store staff, rather than a replacement.

Ed Rosenbaum

This is exciting technology on the one hand because it marks a wave to the future. But a bit concerning on the other side of the ledger. Someone is being displaced each time a robot arrives on the scene. Where are these people going to get work? Certainly not as a repair person when the robot hits a disconnect. Yes, we should move forward. But at what price?

Paul R. Schottmiller
Paul R. Schottmiller
4 years 6 months ago

The is a researcher at Carnegie Mellon that is already pushing the bounds here specifically for retail. Along the lines of what Rick noted—drive down the aisles and recognize out of stocks, help with way finding, real time planograms, etc.

Basically as the stores, the products, the associates, and the customers become more connected there will be many more automation opportunities—automating things we already do and even doing them better (i.e. stay on top of inventory and out of stocks).

See this video on Carnegie Mellon project.

Next up, how about these capabilities on drones?

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.

Baxter could check for out of stocks and send messages to managers to get the shelves restocked. Baxter could check inventory levels at other stores or in the warehouse in response to consumer questions. Baxter might be able to do some clean-up or pick-up jobs. Baxter might be able to ask consumers questions and record responses into a database.

Whether these are practical or cost effective choices is another question.

Ralph Jacobson

Well, the last reason to shop a physical store may be eliminated with inhuman store staff. Conversely, some shoppers may be intrigued by these robots, so perhaps there will still be a compelling reason to shop the store. Perhaps.

Martin Mehalchin

As we highlighted in our recent BrainTrust article on Seattle’s Hointer, some retailers are already experimenting with the use of robots in the backroom. I think using robots to handle mundane stock activities and keeping store labor focused on customer-facing interactions is a win-win for the industry and the consumer.

Mark Burr
4 years 6 months ago
I had to smile when I read the survey question. Twenty-five years? Really? Whenever I see a question like that, or the question of likelihood in the future, I have to look backwards. In this case, let’s say, oh, 1988? What has happened since then? Around that time, 30 miles to the gallon for a car sounded good. It still does. If you had a cell phone, it was likely in a box or a bag. Numerous personal computer type devices in a home wasn’t the norm as few had even one. If they did, it covered their desk and certainly were not in the palm of your hand. We talked in terms of dial-up and baud rate. One of 1200 was good and 9600 seemed like a dream. We had been told for a long time even then that the conventional supermarket was dead. It still isn’t. In fact, other than the products, it hasn’t changed all that much. Self-Checkout wasn’t on the horizon. It is here now, but still not widely accepted. Walmart had barely reached 1,000 stores. Outside of Bentonville, AR few, if any, would have imagined or have believed over 5,000. So, what does looking back… Read more »
Karen S. Herman

In my view, the front of the store belongs to humans. From Starbucks to Nordstrom, the employees make the difference and human interaction is vital to making average to excellent sales and maintaining happy customers.

These days, with highly automated stock rooms and back office operations, along with just-in-time distribution centers, it seems that technology is competing with, and in some ways displacing robots. And now robots are being positioned to displace humans. I don’t like it.

Craig Sundstrom

Let’s skip the front lines and install them at HQ. Wouldn’t an automaton be just perfect at a press conference reading statements like “We will continue to prioritize top-line customer service despite laying off 96% of our sales staff”? Or how about going all the way and installing them on the BOD. Imagine Ruby-the-Robot at a board meeting: “We need to move more upscale,” or “we need a Facebook presence to better connect with Millennials”…and they’d make a lot le$$ too!


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