Should robots take over tracking store inventory?

Discussion
Nov 16, 2015

A robot has arrived to replace one of the most mundane tasks of retail associates: inventory checking. From Simbe Robotics, Tally promises to audit shelves cheaper, more frequently, and significantly faster than existing processes with near-perfect accuracy.

Standing 38 inches tall — although adjustable to a retailer’s shelf height requirements — Tally autonomously roams the store auditing shelves for out-of-stock items, low stock items, misplaced items and pricing errors. With a suite of sensors, Tally operates safely during normal store hours alongside shoppers and employees.

The robot takes high-resolution images of product labels at each shelf and then returns to its charging dock. Matching its findings against a store’s planogram, the data captured is sent securely to the cloud for processing and real-time analysis.

Store managers can use the data to quickly restock and reorder. Regional managers can conduct inventory analysis across stores. Simbe Robotics also may sell its scanning data to vendors for shelf-performance insights.

"Tally helps retailers address these challenges by providing more precise and timely analysis of the state of in-store merchandise and freeing up staff to focus on customer service," said Brad Bogolea, CEO and co-founder of Simbe Robotics, in a statement.

[Image: Tally]

Mr. Bogolea told CNN Money that one Tally robot can scan 15,000 items in an hour while a single employee would take between 20 to 30 hours to audit all those items.

Simbe Robotics also claims that the traditional use of IT systems and manual labor for auditing is often inaccurate. Its press release cited an Aberdeen Group study finding that seventy percent of retailers rate themselves "average" or "below average" with respect to inventory management.

Tally, which is currently in trial with several North American retailers, requires no infrastructure changes to the operation and is being offered to stores to rent for a monthly fee. Mr. Bogolea contends the robot winds up being less expensive than using store associates.

Several articles lamented the possible loss of human jobs as robot technology improve and become less expensive.

Should robots audit shelves instead of humans? Will shoppers get accustomed to shopping alongside a scanning robot?

Braintrust
"Accurately auditing on-shelf inventory is half the battle. The other is accurately ordering to prevent out-of-stocks. Retailers need to make a commitment to order enough inventory to keep shelves properly stocked."
"A key competitive advantage of stores should be instant gratification of stock on the shelf for purchase. Given the stats mentioned in the article, is there any question that robots should audit shelves to prevent out of stocks?"
"A more efficient way to audit shelves is absolutely necessary and a robot seems like a perfect solution — don’t let those human workers go though, they are still needed to restock the shelves and interact with the shoppers."

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21 Comments on "Should robots take over tracking store inventory?"

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Max Goldberg
BrainTrust

Accurately auditing on-shelf inventory is half the battle. The other is accurately ordering to prevent out-of-stocks. Retailers need to make a commitment to order enough inventory to keep shelves properly stocked.

Chris Petersen, PhD.
BrainTrust

A key competitive advantage of stores should be instant gratification of stock on the shelf for purchase.

Given the stats mentioned in the article, is there any question that robots should audit shelves to prevent out of stocks? If there is one thing in store design for robot application this would seem to be it.

If the robots can accurately audit the shelves humans can then be deployed to do what they to best … interact with other humans called customers!

Dr. Stephen Needel
BrainTrust

As long as the cost of the robot is less than the cost of an employee, then they absolutely should be doing this. A smart chain will make the scanning robot an amusing addition to the store — I can imagine shoppers looking for the robot.

David Dorf
BrainTrust

Yes, this is a great application of robot technology. We’re already using robot vacuums at home, so seeing robots in stores is no big deal. More to come for sure!

Tom Redd
BrainTrust

Hold on! When Tally can also answer shoppers questions then we are going in the right direction. If you use Tally after key shopping hours and have store walkthroughs by those things called Mike or Sally or Dan (these are human associates) then Tally might be a real benefit.

If Tally had a receiver and speaker and an associate listening at all times then if someone asked Tally a question or kicked him, then Tally could chat back or comment. Add digitization to the voice of person being Tally so that they sound like a robot. Then Tally makes sense and can be a part of the shopper’s day. “Need something? Ask Tally.”

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

Physical stores are most often still challenged in optimizing inventory levels on a constant basis. This perennial problem needs all the help it can get. If these technologies can help capture more accurate inventory visibility, then we need to implement them where it makes sense. There is no question that shoppers will understand the technology’s role in the stores, especially if the retailer communicates their advantages.

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

Let me be the dissenting voice.

This robot must be cruising aisles that are a lot more organized than the aisles I’m seeing. It assumes that barcodes are in the right place and shelf labels are accurate. It also assumes that inventory issues are most often found in the center of the store, which may not be the case.

I’ll believe it when I see it.

Joan Treistman
BrainTrust

This is one time that the advantages of a robot are too obvious to ignore: time savings, greater accuracy and cost efficiency. I agree that the novelty of the robot will be interesting and perhaps amusing to shoppers.

Comments about utilizing staff to enhance the in-store experience for shoppers is spot on. I don’t want to seem Pollyannaish about this but I hope that retailers give some thought to how robots will make their staff feel as well. Integrating Tally will be a window into how the c-suite feels about their employees.

Zel Bianco
BrainTrust

A more efficient way to audit shelves is absolutely necessary and a robot seems like a perfect solution — don’t let those human workers go though, they are still needed to restock the shelves and interact with the shoppers (occasionally explaining to them what that robot thing is!).

J. Kent Smith
BrainTrust

Store staff always have way more to do than the time allotted to them, so something that takes some of the mundane away could help. But I’m sure there are limits — then again there are other applications for the technology in-store, too. I’m interested to see where this goes, not just from the perspective of accuracy and composite measures of efficiency and effectiveness, but how the robot is viewed by customers as well as by staff. It’s easy to imagine this technology going from measuring out-of-stock to “measuring” and then we have the prospect of the $10/hour staff being managed in some sense by a robot.

richard freund
Guest
richard freund
1 year 6 months ago

Knowing the inventory, what sells and what doesn’t, is not something a robot can ascertain at this time. the person(s) running the retail location have to know the inventory.

Todd Hale
Guest
Todd Hale
1 year 6 months ago

Looks like an obvious winner for both retailers (faster, more timely read of store shelves) and shoppers (more service from in-store associates where it matters most).

Peter Charness
BrainTrust

If it works? What’s the cost of an RFID tag these days?

Ed Rosenbaum
BrainTrust

Absolutely, the robot will be the future of inventory management. Not only on the store selling floor, but also in the warehouse. I know it is starting to happen in some larger corporate warehouses and distribution centers. It will be increasingly more important in the near future. Robots will be taking another job humans used to perform. Next?

Lee Kent
BrainTrust

I’m on the same page as Cathy here. I think this is the right direction, however, the application is based on images? That means the planograms must be exact and the facings perfect. And those elements require humans. Hmmm.

I guess it’s a whole lot cheaper than item level RFID and that will have a lot of appeal, but we need to rethink the accuracy.

For my 2 cents.

Herb Sorensen
BrainTrust

100% Positive. There is an urgent need for this robot far beyond inventory control. It will play a significant role in replacing full-store shelf audits, supporting our bidirectional search.  This refers to the fact that as shoppers are searching the store for merchandise, the “merchandise,” on behalf of retailers and suppliers, is searching for shoppers! See: “Seeing Shopping Again for the Very First Time.” To scientifically rationalize this process it is essential to continuously have the location and behavior of both shoppers and products.  This, in turn, is an essential component of the “Webby Bricks Store,” an example of which may be seen in Seattle’s new Amazon bricks store!

Ed Dunn
Guest
1 year 6 months ago

This technology will not work next week during the pre-Thanksgiving grocery shopping period when the aisles are congested and items go out of stock real fast.

I personally prefer a quadcopter drone that can fly overhead and sideways between people and able to push products on high-shelf off the shelf hopefully into the cart waiting below if needed.

gordon arnold
Guest

This scenario requires not just a trust in the business continuity and security aspects of the technologies merged to accomplish the inventory tallying task, but company planning and preparedness as well. Additionally, today’s brick & mortar retailer has the problem of consumers creating distressed and damaged merchandise throughout the store. As always this is a great opportunity in the ideals of a perfect world. And when the perfect world is created, a majority of retail business owners will no doubt race to this solution.

Carlos Arambula
BrainTrust

If the robot can make the shopping experience more pleasant for the consumer and efficient for the retailer then absolutely. I’m not certain that a robot trailing consumers or getting on the way will be a good thing. There has to be less intrusive technology that can do the same.

Karen S. Herman
BrainTrust
So very cool and it looks like Tally is debuting at just the right time. With Kiva robots working for humans in Amazon warehouses to keep the goods moving and KUKA Robots building Tesla Model S sedans and Model X SUVs, it’s a given that robots would appear to do exactly what Tally is meant to do “streamline store performance, maximize customer satisfaction, increase sales, and reduce operational expenditures.” Shoppers should appreciate the efficiency and greater guarantee that products will be readily available, and robots are already serving them, behind the scenes, and creating that more efficient delivery experience that they are getting very accustomed to enjoying. One concern is ROS and its open source platform. Retailers that use Tally should take precautions for security and privacy. Another concern is that Tally is creating a lot of data. According to Gartner there are “4.9B connected “things” in use in 2015 (30 percent higher than 2014) and an expected increase to 25B by 2020. And most of these devices will be creating data in one way or another.” Interesting that today I read “How Brick and Mortar Data Centers Enable Cloud Computing, Big Data and the IoT“ Ironic that “the Cloud”… Read more »
Matt Talbot
BrainTrust

I think robotics are a great tool to manage inventory and shelving. If the data surrounding time savings is accurate, using robots to stock shelves would save employees time, which can be allotted for other in-store activities, like helping customers.

To that end, in-store employees need to be a resource to customers — whether those customers are browsing or buying. If employees no longer have to handle inventory, they can answer customer questions, help shoppers find products, and generally enhance the in-store experience by performing less mundane tasks.

Furthermore, robots may reduce human error. If metrics and data can prove that robots are effective, with few mistakes, robotics could be the future of [some aspects of] retail.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"Accurately auditing on-shelf inventory is half the battle. The other is accurately ordering to prevent out-of-stocks. Retailers need to make a commitment to order enough inventory to keep shelves properly stocked."
"A key competitive advantage of stores should be instant gratification of stock on the shelf for purchase. Given the stats mentioned in the article, is there any question that robots should audit shelves to prevent out of stocks?"
"A more efficient way to audit shelves is absolutely necessary and a robot seems like a perfect solution — don’t let those human workers go though, they are still needed to restock the shelves and interact with the shoppers."

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