Lowe’s new sales help seems a little robotic

Discussion
Oct 30, 2014

A sales floor stacked with lumber and other old-fashioned home improvement necessities might not be the first place you would expect to see bleeding-edge technology at work. But the latest in-store technology developed by Lowe’s Innovation Labs (in conjunction with robotics company Fellow Robots) feels like something from "The Jetsons". In late November, the Lowe’s-owned Orchard Supply Hardware will be rolling out in-store robotic shopping assistants, which glide around the store interacting with customers and catering to their shopping needs.

A promotional video posted on YouTube shows the sleek robotic shopping assistant, OSHbot, rolling up to individuals in the store and interacting with them, introducing itself by name. OSHbot is shown identifying items that customers place within its view and leading the customer to where similar items can be found. Marco Mascarro CEO and co-Founder of Fellow Robots explains that OSHbot maps out the store as it moves through it, so that it is aware of sales floor reconfigurations and changes in stock. OSHbot is also shown enabling touch-screen searches for items, communicating with customers in multiple languages, and facilitating cross-store video chats with live associates.

[Image: OSHbot]

According to a Wall Street Journal article, Lowe’s currently has two functioning robots and may introduce more. The article also indicates that the high cost of robot building could be a roadblock to widespread adoption, at least for now.

OSHbot is not Lowe’s Innovation Labs’ first foray into science fiction technology. In June, Lowe’s began demoing its Lowe’s Holoroom, a three-dimensional simulator designed to help customers make home improvement choices.

In addition to the features shown in the OSHbot video, the theoretical uses of integrating robots with other burgeoning technologies to extend omni-channel reach and guide customers down a path to purchase seem endless. With a projected 53.2 million mobile coupon users in the U.S. by the end of 2014, according to Statista, couponing is one area in which robots and smartphones could be used in conjunction.

But the changes that widespread adoption of shopper assistant robots could make does raise questions about what will become of the humans who now staff the sales floor.

According to a study cited in a Business Insider article, "as much as half the U.S. workforce is at risk of being replaced by mobile robots and ‘smart’ computers within the next two decades," with retail associates being the segment of the economy most likely to get replaced.

In what ways could robots meaningfully enhance the customer experience? Will retail workers eventually find themselves replaced by robots?

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19 Comments on "Lowe’s new sales help seems a little robotic"

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Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

How can we make retail soulless and exactly like a web search? I know, add robots.

The test will be interesting. Personally, I doubt people with much heart will warm up to the cold steel.

If you look at employees as robots anyways, this will be an easy choice.

If you are a premium destination retailer, I can’t imagine implementing these in my lifetime.

Max Goldberg
BrainTrust

Robots could enhance the customer shopping experience when they become more useful than humans. When robots can dispense information about products, offer alternative solutions and seamlessly handle transactions they will be a threat to traditional retail workers. When they are cheaper than sales associates, they will become attractive to retail management.

Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

First, to all the doubters, this is not an anomaly, but a portent of things to come (sooner than later) in all industries.

I like it, it’s a step in the right direction, and can be meaningful to customers if deployed thoughtfully, carefully and as a customer-selected alternative to human interaction or no interaction. It reminds me of a similar robot tested, I believe at MIT, in their bookstore. In the coming years, these systems will only get better, more personable and more useful. Although expensive initially, the cost benefit will be realized over time.

Having said all of that, from the retailer’s view, humans should never be replaced fully. Each customer will have their preference of how and with whom or what to engage within the store.

And yes, I am deeply concerned for workers in retail and many other industries (including white collar positions) that will be pushed aside by these technologies. It’s a social problem that will need to be addressed and there are no simple answers. The talking heads who claim that displaced workers will find new, possibly better, jobs building and maintaining the automatons that took their jobs are IMHO deluding themselves.

Kevin Graff
BrainTrust

Funny how IT thinks that retail is, well, IT! Given that most IT people prefer computers over people, it’s no wonder they’re in love with this robot idea.

Not looking to throw the robot under the bus, but seriously, when the day comes that stores are filled with robots and not staff—wait, that day won’t ever come. Why? Because stores then would be nothing more than a very expensive way to operate online-type businesses and would cease to exist.

Yes, there’s a role for technology and maybe even a few robots. But I would argue that the shopping experience that stores are supposed to provide is only created by having real live, knowledgeable and friendly staff.

Don Uselmann
Guest
Don Uselmann
2 years 7 months ago

Perhaps the most meaningful contribution of robots will be depth and breadth of knowledge—infinite, and certainly far more than any customer would query. Currently many stores are supporting sales associates by supplementing their knowledge with technology, but yes, as technology continues to advance many retail workers will continue to be replaced (self-check-out was just the beginning). How far it will go will be dependent upon the consumers’ need and desire for human interaction, and God help us all if they decide they like the robot better. The debate about gay marriage will be long over but replaced by another: “Is my robot significant-other covered under my health care plan (care provided by the Best Buy Geek Squad)?”

Naomi K. Shapiro
Guest
Naomi K. Shapiro
2 years 7 months ago

This may sound like a tautology, but robots will meaningfully enhance the customer experience when they perform better than the retail workers do. That includes making suggestions, showing where a product is located and helping the customer understand how to use a product. And just helping at all (how many times have you tried to search up and down the aisles to find someone to help you?) And maybe the robots will be better behaved than a retail worker was last week in a home supply store, when, in the middle of an explanation of how to use a product, he said, “I’ve spent enough time with you,” and I had to beg him to finish the explanation so I could buy the product and take it home and use it!

Mel Kleiman
BrainTrust

The future is here. In answer to all the questions above and more:

  1. Yes robots will meaningfully enhance the customer experience.
  2. Yes (some) retail workers will eventually find themselves replaced.
  3. This is going to be another structural change in or labor market.
  4. Not only will this affect retail, but also hospitality.
  5. It is already having a major effect on warehousing and manufacturing.

This comment by a Lowe’s worker who watched the video sums up the whole picture:

“I work for Lowe’s, this will weed out the good employees from the bad ones, and there’s quite a few bad employees that shouldn’t even have jobs. The robot would only replace what we at Lowe’s call the ‘We Team’. A group of people whose only job is to walk the customer to the product, they have little to zero knowledge of the products we sell.”

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

First of all—change the name. One doesn’t have to think too long to guess what human associates will call their robotic peers.

Secondly, this is a novelty play today. It remains to be seen whether or not it will work into a strategy tomorrow.

And, much as I like the surreal notion of an army of robots cruising the aisles, (and I really do) the key will be the level of customer acceptance. I can hear the ads now, “Come to Home Depot where people treat people like people.”

It’s not that I doubt that—for certain applications—the robots can work. It’s just that I have a hard time imagining them doing suggestive selling, up-selling or lending a sympathetic audio sensor (or whatever it is robots have instead of ears) to a clueless customer.

Adrian Weidmann
BrainTrust

Really? This is what a Fortune 50 retailer believes will enhance its brand and help its shoppers? This seems more like a calculated PR stunt to give Lowe’s a visibility boost.

Another, darker perspective is that Lowe’s is giving us a glimpse of their true opinion of their “red shirt” sales associates. Many posts here on RetailWire over the years from industry insiders have presented opinions on how retailers and brands can bring relevance and differentiation back to brick-and-mortar retail. Never once, to my recollection, has anyone ever suggested using robots to interface with customers.

Why not just make the Lowe’s store a 110,000 square foot drive-up vending machine where you drive up to a window and give the Lowe’s Siri-character your name? He confirms your order was received online and says, “Proceed to the loading dock where our friendly, anatomically-correct ‘staff’ will load your order. Would you like to super-size your order?”

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.
BrainTrust

Robots could certainly be helpful by helping people find items in the store. I suppose they could even provide product information. If they manage those functions efficiently they could certainly fulfill a useful function, but so could a kiosk which would be less expensive. If they perform the function better than current employees, customers are likely to begin relying on them. The ability of the robots to function instead of people depends upon how well they can be programmed to respond to the immense variety of situations that occur in a retail environment. Then there is the issue of whether there are enough robots so consumers can get to them in a timely manner to ask questions. The novelty will be fun. How well they work and how well consumers accept them as truly functional will determine long-term success.

Ed Stevens
Guest
Ed Stevens
2 years 7 months ago

I don’t know if robots will take over completely, but definitely they will be a fixture of retail in the future. Maybe they could go retrieve things from various parts of the store. Maybe they could identify areas that need cleanup or organization.

Robots need to be more than a moving kiosk, though. A touch screen and scanner on every aisle will always be cheaper than a moving machine with motors, batteries, etc. Customers will prefer to know where help can be found vs. looking around for a robot.

Two robots roaming a giant hardware store is not going to be enough coverage. But once robots get cheap enough—and they will get much cheaper—then they could get enough coverage on the floor to make a real difference.

Lee Kent
BrainTrust

Robots do provide another method of meaningfully engaging the customer and thus adding to the overall customer experience. Methinks they could have done much the same using kiosks and at a lot less cost but hey, that’s just my two cents!

If the customer wants direction and some how-to information this is great. If the customer has a tricky problem? Maybe not so great, though I did read that the robot could connect the customer with an expert.

Not sure I see this particular manifestation of customer assistance becoming widespread. I do however, see the need to add touch points such as kiosks, expert desks, tool finders, etc., along the path to purchase. For a lot less cost and with fewer obstacles to dodge in an already crowded warehouse.

John Karolefski
Guest
John Karolefski
2 years 7 months ago

Stores need more of the human touch—be it more helpful sales associates, cooking demos, personable sampling, etc. So, no, robots will not enhance the customer experience.

Will retail workers eventually find themselves replaced by robots? Of course.
Anything to cut costs and improve efficiency will gain favor with many retail companies.

So let’s see. At some point In the future, e-commerce will dominate the distribution of consumer goods and groceries, robots will roam the aisles in whatever stores are still open with self-scanning the norm, while countless thousands of marginally skilled former workers are doing…what?

What a wonderful world it will be.

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

No doubt that robots will take away some jobs. But this generation of robots won’t replace the connection the customer needs to have with a live person for true help. When a customer is taken to the item in the store by a robot, the robot can’t communicate and ask questions like a knowledgeable sales rep. The opportunity for the up-sell and cross-sell are missed with technology at this time.

Also, the app on a mobile phone can achieve some of the same thing. If an app can give me step-by-step directions to get to a location a mile away (or hundreds of miles away), it can surely help me find a hammer a few aisles over in the store. And, the app can track my buying patterns, requests and more. And, the app can allow for communication between the retailer and the customer; sending special and customized promotions, coupons and more.

Sure, robots will eliminate some jobs. But, that’s just a smaller part of technology, which is changing everything—jobs included.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

DANGER! WILL ROBINSON, indeed!

If they simply replace workers, I don’t see how they would be of any help. I was in an OSH this weekend and actually bought something because (1) they had what I wanted, and (2) the clerk pointed it out to me…would a robot have done the same thing? Only if I didn’t run away from it first, and then I can’t really say. The BI article, though, says replacement isn’t actually Lowe’s goal—for now, anyway—so we’ll have to see how people react. Personally I find it rather creepy.

Lee Peterson
BrainTrust

That is just such a bad idea on so many levels. What Lowe’s “innovation lab” overlooked was the fact that people in stores are the best differentiation from online shopping. Customers tell us that. Besides, why talk to a robot in a store when you can just stay at home and talk to the robot in your computer? Why bother with the store? Or, is that the ultimate goal here? Self fulfilling prophecy?

The “Innovation Lab” should become “The Blocking and Tackling Lab,” where they re-visit lost ideas, like customer service … from a person! You know, hiring and training, that old school thing that Apple, Starbucks, Whole Foods and Chipotle do.

Besides, I remember this idea back when it was called “a kiosk,” and didn’t work. I’m pretty sure stuff like this is a pure PR play. They couldn’t be serious.

Marge Laney
BrainTrust
2 years 7 months ago

According to Gallup’s just released 2014 State of the American Consumer, “The true differentiator in retail (and nearly every other industry) is the people who are responsible for delivering the brand promise.” Additionally, “…customers who are fully engaged represent an average 23% premium in terms or wallet, profitability, revenue, and relationship growth…”

Retailers who spend time and money developing robot strategies to service in-store customers are missing a couple of important robot realities. Robots cannot deliver a brand promise meaningfully, empathetically, or authentically.

Bottom line: Spend time and money on developing your front line people—that’s why customers make the effort to come to your store in the first place, otherwise they would just stay home.

vic gallese
Guest
vic gallese
2 years 7 months ago

First of all, if OSHbot is the most creative name they could come up with, I think the live associate is safe!

If they get the communication and speed right, there could be a place for a cost-effective mobile sales application in a place like Lowe’s. A help line connected to the bot would certainly be of value in describing “how to” or connecting to YouTube. That is where I get my best instructions!

I believe it will be a long time before R2D2 takes the place of a qualified breathing sales associate. A good science experiment, though!

Naomi K. Shapiro
Guest
Naomi K. Shapiro
2 years 7 months ago

I’m kind of shocked at all of the respondents who shunned robots in favor of, what: Kiosks, more responsive human associates, etc. Um, isn’t that the essential problem?

  1. Play find-the-kiosk, if there is one, find out if it is staffed, wait your turn, see if they really can help you, do they take you to the product, do they make suggestions, etc.?
  2. Turned off by a robot? Hey, if they/it have the answers and information, it’s superior to going to an automated place or information center, entering your questions and getting answers (and how many times have you already tried this, unsuccessfully?) and then going back to find the product, and then if you have more questions, going back to the automated place, etc.

I see nothing creepy about being helped immediately by a polite, efficient robot.

And don’t you think the youngest generations, nursed on technology and automation, would find this to be normal and acceptable assistance?

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