Will humans shop at a store run mostly by robots?

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Discussion
Feb 01, 2016
Tom Ryan

SoftBank Group Corp., the Japanese parent of Sprint, will test what it claims to be the first store to be run largely by robots.

Five or six of the company’s Pepper humanoid robots will greet shoppers, demonstrate cellphones and make purchasing suggestions. They will also use a tablet to assist customers in handling order processing and finalize data plans.

Some human staffers will be present in the back to check customers’ IDs and for maintenance, but customers will be able to purchase a phone without human contact. The test will run from Mar. 28 to Apr. 3 at a store in Tokyo.

Built with cloud-based artificial intelligence (AI) that allows it to recognize voices and to run apps, the Pepper robot is designed to discern emotions in human voices and body movements and respond accordingly.

Japan is undergoing a fascination over robots with the devices also appearing in department stores, banks, hospitals and hotels. Since a consumer version arrived in June, Pepper has sold out for seven consecutive months.

A number of reports also speculate on how automation and robots will waylay industries.

In a report from last November, McKinsey said advances in AI, including machine learning, “are challenging our assumptions about what is automatable.” In retail, the consultancy estimated that 49 percent of cashiers’ tasks are potentially automatable while 47 percent of retail associates’ tasks and 33 percent of the tasks of first line supervisors of retail workers are potentially automatable.

A Citigroup report from last year said retail and sales occupations might become susceptible to computerization due to the rise of big data. Recommender systems used by Netflix, Amazon and Spotify, according to Citigroup, are already tapping “sophisticated machine learning techniques to compare a particular customer’s purchases to those of other customers, and, with instant recall of large product catalogues, can provide product recommendations that, in many instances, may be more useful than those of a human salesperson.”

How open do you think American consumers will be to interacting with robots in stores? How much potential do you see for robots to improve the in-store experience? What do you see as their limitations?

Braintrust
"Novelty marketing and an opportunity to get some press ā€” that’s the value of robots interacting with brick-and-mortar shoppers. When is the last time you were thrilled and delighted to interact with a robo-operator when you called customer service? NEVER!"
"Boy, that’s a bad idea for the US, unless you do it as a novelty. As it is, most young people we talk to don’t want to go to stores because the customer service is so bad. But when you talk to them about what stores they like, it’s all about human interaction."
"We’re in an age where people are anxiously awaiting cars that drive themselves. Why not retail stores that require no human interaction? The market will welcome interacting with efficient, information-rich devices that are truly helpful."

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29 Comments on "Will humans shop at a store run mostly by robots?"

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Ken Morris
BrainTrust

I think robots will be part of the in-store experience in some segments of retail like home improvement, some big box retailers and perhaps supermarkets but I don’t believe they will “fly” in specialty. Shopping is theater and, well, Broadway will never be replaced by robots. The checkout, product lookup and back stock picking are areas that will see an impact from this technology but it will be some time before it is pervasive.

Max Goldberg
BrainTrust

Once the novelty wears off, I think American consumers will long for human interaction. And retailers should carefully consider the pitfalls before replacing human interaction with robots. I don’t want to speak to a machine or script. I can do that and have a generally unsatisfactory experience by dialing any company’s customer service department and getting a touch menu, or by speaking with “Susan” in India. Retailers that value customer service put well-trained humans on the front lines and empower them to help customers and solve problems.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

Aren’t they already dealing with robots?

Adrian Weidmann
BrainTrust

Novelty marketing and an opportunity to get some press — that’s the value of robots interacting with brick-and-mortar shoppers. When is the last time you were thrilled and delighted to interact with a robo-operator when you called customer service? NEVER! I can only imagine how annoyed i would be if I traveled to a store only to be met by a robot.

As retailers are scrambling to find relevance for their brick-and-mortar stores, it’s the people that will make the difference. Without people, your store simply becomes a giant vending machine. Robots will be useful to manage inventory and even checkout but not engaging the shopper in a meaningful way.

Zel Bianco
BrainTrust

I don’t think that a store mostly run by robots would do well in the U.S. While technology can absolutely make stores more efficient and can make stores seem high-tech, nothing really replaces being able to walk into a store and get real, live help from a well-informed salesperson.

Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

It’s an interesting move and one to gather a lot of press (as it has been doing) and will certainly attract the curious, but the U.S. is not as robot-oriented as Japan, so I don’t see this expanding in a serious way anytime soon. Over time, based on reception to this experiment and its ultimate effectiveness, robots do have potential as an additional in-store CS tool.

For this implementation, I’m not convinced that Pepper is capable of handling the entire mobile buying experience and will likely need some associate intervention.

J. Kent Smith
BrainTrust

I think there are some generational aspects to this discussion; those born in the age of the smartphone and Siri will accept it more easily. Most stores are closed for almost as many hours as they are open so I expect “robots” will first be scheduled during closed and slower hours, easing their introduction and limiting the downside when things inevitably go wrong. But fast forward a generation and I think we’ll see technology permeating retail much more overtly.

Liz Crawford
BrainTrust

Unlike a Japanese consumer, the average American shopper doesn’t have a “fascination” with robots. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for automated retail.

If we call it something else — an ATM machine, an airline kiosk or a grocery self-checkout, automated retail gets more approachable for Americans. Machine interaction is less expensive, more consistent and actually preferred by Millennials. Retail shop, order and pay apps are popular with a younger generation of shopper who considers these tools essential for staying in control of the experience.

Ed Dunn
Guest
Ed Dunn
5 months 27 days ago

If a robot like R2D2 can navigate a customer around to find a product (kids will love it), communicate with a customer phone via Bluetooth and project a hologram presentation against a glass display for customers, humans are going to be in trouble. When robots become a brand mascot and are adorable like R2D2, that is when consumers will embrace robots.

Tony Orlando
BrainTrust

Customer service used to be great, and in some cases a robot probably has more personality than humans, so we’ll see. I understand the tech craze and it is kind of mind-boggling what we can do, but there is no substitute for an amazing sales associate. That being said, they are rare indeed. Improving customer service is talked about all the time but it really hasn’t improved over the years, rather is has gotten much worse as we wait forever to get checked out of stores that are under-staffed and struggle to stay in business.

There are no simple answers to this problem, as labor costs will always be expensive and are going up every year. Robots would not be my first choice, but hey, if they can help me find something quickly, why not. I don’t see a robot closing a sale like the top associates can and, other than that, robots will probably do well in fast food and other stores that do not rely on high-end customer service, thus cutting payroll, as robots do not take breaks or cause trouble. What a crazy world we now live in, and the future will only get crazier.

Tim Cote
Guest
5 months 26 days ago

People may prefer human interaction, but consumer preference usually takes a back seat to pricing. If robots can help retail hold down cost in the face of minimum wage pressures and increasing governmental regulation on everything, “robots” and other forms of technology designed to replace jobs (people) will win the day.

Mel Kleiman
BrainTrust

If robots can get the consumer though the checkout line faster, answer questions and be more informed than human employees, and on top of that reduce cost by increasing efficiency (and not having to be paid), people will be delighted to accept them.

The only caveat is that the workers that retailers are going to need to hire are going to have to be smarter, be more customer focused and be paid more.

Naomi K. Shapiro
Guest
Naomi K. Shapiro
5 months 26 days ago

I can’t speak for other American consumers, but I’d be willing to give it a try. I think robots could improve the in-store experience considerably — after the first time, which may be just a novelty, I can see robots providing better, more accurate answers and information, undivided attention, ability to close the sale (why not?), being simply more efficient and dependable, and being tons better than no help, or bad help.

Ed Rosenbaum
BrainTrust

Once again we find a way to eliminate jobs held by humans who need the income. What will happen to create jobs allowing those displaced to survive? I do think there will be a place for robots. But not in a full-blown customer assistance position. I also think it could be a generational thing with younger people gravitating to it more readily than us seniors. For us seniors, it is not going to happen.

Robert DiPietro
BrainTrust

I think it will take Americans some time to open up to operating with robots, but it isn’t that far of a step from self checkout and other “smart” vending machines. I think the potential for a better store experience is very high…think very knowledgeable sales associate that never has a bad day. Or think no hunting for an associate to help you when you want to engage to make a purchase.

The downside may be the attachment sales that some of the retailers rely on to make non-profitable tech sales profitable.

Vahe Katros
Guest
5 months 26 days ago

We can begin to answer this question by thinking about the nature of questions in the retail context. One line of questioning a robot may be uniquely suited for could be related to understanding how knowledgeable a customer is in a particular merchandise category. I am thinking that a customer won’t be embarrassed to reveal a total lack of understanding of the matter at hand.

Helping the customer learn about their unknown-unknowns can be hugely valuable, so I can see robots in the roll of teachers (beyond the obvious basic tactical stuff like merchandise status, hours of operation, return policy etc.).

Learning what the real problem or motivation is that drove the shopper into the store is something good sales people do. I guess having a robot say: “Did your wife make you sleep on the couch again?” without the appropriate bedside manner highlights a limitation — my guess is that a Captain Kirk persona will win out over a Mr. Spock persona in high-touch categories. And I am having fun with this question. Beep.

Jerry Gelsomino
BrainTrust

I think the critical attribute is, how do the robots look? Scary and menacing, or cute and comical? Think of all the different looks of androids depicted in Star Wars. Which look would you feel like shopping with? I vote for giving the customer’s mobile device the power of a robot when they are in the specific store. Human “runners” would then retrieve the merchandise from the storeroom, for that personal touch.

Gajendra Ratnavel
BrainTrust

Human Robots have a long way to go before they gain the trust from humans. I suspect the treatment will be similar to how people treat touch screen kiosks now. We’ll eventually get there, but it’s very early right now.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

If it’s a choice between “interacting” with Rudy-the-Robot or no one — nothing? — at all, then I guess we’ll go for the former (and let’s be honest; at many stores now, the staffing is so minimal, nothing is what you get) … but this still strikes me as a rather gimmicky idea. Japan has long had an automation fetish that doesn’t seem to entirely translate here.

Lee Peterson
BrainTrust

Boy, that’s a bad idea for the US, unless you do it as a novelty. As it is, most young people we talk to don’t want to go to stores because the customer service is so bad. But when you talk to them about what stores they like, it’s all about human interaction; Starbucks, Apple, Anthropologie, etc., who all have excellently trained humans working for them.

Besides, we already know this from the kiosk debacle of 10 years ago: retailers don’t want to invest in a lot of hardware, it’s much easier to let the consumer do it (phones).

Now, if a customer brings their robot in with them … you’d really have something!

Arie Shpanya
BrainTrust

This could be an exciting addition to retail in America, but often the whole point of going into a store is to talk with a knowledgeable employee about the products they’re selling. A robot can’t tell you that they use the item in their home and give suggestions based on their experience with it. It would be great if robots could speed up checkout times, but we’ll have to wait and see the impact they actually have.

Larry Negrich
BrainTrust

We’re in an age where people are anxiously awaiting cars that drive themselves. Why not retail stores that require no human interaction? The market will welcome interacting with efficient, information-rich devices that are truly helpful. But like all things: success is in the execution.

Matt Talbot
BrainTrust

I think American consumers will find the idea of interacting with robots fascinating and intriguing, but not necessarily helpful. The human element of an in-store experience — like helping customers find what they want, and tailoring products to become a solution — will be unavailable when interacting with robots.

Robots will be great for customers who enter a store with a specific product in mind, or customers with a specific question and/or need to satisfy.

I think a store would function better if robots were available to help customers, but humans were also there. Regardless of how well these robots can judge emotion and help customers personally, I think humans could probably be more helpful. That being said, it’s very possible these robots will exceed my expectations and raise the level of in-store experience altogether.

David Livingston
Guest
5 months 26 days ago

I think any retailer that has difficulty in finding qualified and approachable people would benefit. Robots show up on time to work, don’t take smoke breaks, won’t steal from you, and don’t have to pay them and provide benefits. Self checkouts have already improved the in-store experience by removing the unapproachable human. This would improve the experience all over the store except perhaps pharmacy.

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

The public is more than ready for this. Twenty years ago, a Canadian grocer set up a completely self-service store as a test. People loved it. Now, with robots adding a bit of personality, I think this is a great opportunity to get personal with shoppers, where humans often fall short on that task in most retailers. I don’t see very many limitations for this. Robots can currently do most everything humans need to do, including think!

Charles Whiteman
BrainTrust

The attention given Apple’s Siri illustrates the degree to which U.S. consumers are open to interacting with technology. Initially, I’d expect robotic store associates to be more of a novelty than a true time-saver for customers.

However, I imagine anyone searching for saffron threads at the grocery store or a 15-inch Jerky Gun at Home Depot will gladly accept a guided tour to the right aisle by Pepper. That said, I don’t expect to see this any time soon … if for no other reason than the payroll savings on store associates would likely be swallowed up in the foreseeable future by the technical payroll required to deploy and keep an army of “Peppers” running on all cylinders.

Kai Clarke
BrainTrust

American consumers really don’t care if their stores are filled with robots or people. The real answers are if their stores have the right products at the right prices.

Phil Rubin
BrainTrust
5 months 26 days ago

Given the generally low level of service in stores, robots can only do a better job! Yet part of what drives loyalty and a better experience is tapping into consumers’ emotion and it remains to be seen whether machines can do this.

Bill Hanifin
BrainTrust

A robot driven store would be a curiosity among certain customer groups. Maybe customers of all type and variety would be inclined to visit such a store to witness the technology at work.

How many would actually engage with the robotic retailer would be a smaller set. Among those that give robotic interaction a try in earnest, I would think there will be mainstream resistance.

We’ve just spent the past 2 years talking about customer relationships and experience and I believe most brands are focused on adding some personal touches to their CX, not dilute it with cold technology, however intelligent it may be.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"Novelty marketing and an opportunity to get some press ā€” that’s the value of robots interacting with brick-and-mortar shoppers. When is the last time you were thrilled and delighted to interact with a robo-operator when you called customer service? NEVER!"
"Boy, that’s a bad idea for the US, unless you do it as a novelty. As it is, most young people we talk to don’t want to go to stores because the customer service is so bad. But when you talk to them about what stores they like, it’s all about human interaction."
"We’re in an age where people are anxiously awaiting cars that drive themselves. Why not retail stores that require no human interaction? The market will welcome interacting with efficient, information-rich devices that are truly helpful."

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