Retailers Begin Using Robots to Stock Shelves

Artificial intelligence appears to have a new practical implication as retailers have been testing robots to stock shelves. Following the recent success of robots working in warehouses, retailers have given them a new task: detecting when store shelves need restocking.
 “We’re giving them a real time, actual image of their product layout across the whole store, up to twice or three times a day,” says Red McKay, Managing Director for Europe at Bossa Nova Robotics.
Bossa Nova’s robots, which are being tested out at 50 Walmart stores, will use lasers, radar, and cameras to review store aisles to figure out which products need to be restocked, as well as help managers target what to restock based on profitability and other factors.
More than three-quarters of respondents to a survey released this month by supply-chain software maker JDA Software Group said they aren’t able to track inventory in real time, and 55 percent don’t have a single view of product levels across distribution channels. In many cases, shoppers looking to pick up an online order in-store may have to wait for confirmation that the product is actually available at a certain location.
“Because [retailers] didn’t have that real-time inventory view, they’re only able to offer to the customer the ability to pick up stock the following day, because they are dispatching it from their warehouse,” says Wayne Snyder, JDA’s Vice President of Retail Industry Strategy for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.
Companies are trying to solve this problem without expending the manpower to do constant inventory checks. This is where automated machines come in. However, the technology the machines operate on does more than just log empty shelves. The data it gathers can help managers target which areas to restock based on profitability and other factors. It also provides a more accurate snapshot of store inventory than human workers armed with scanners.
“We’ve been talking for years and years about e-commerce, and how we need to merge e-commerce with your in-store commerce,” says Lori Mitchell-Keller, Co-President of SAP Industries. “And yet at the show, I’ve talked to at least five retailers in just one day who are so excited that they’re finally getting rid of their e-commerce distribution center and combining with other distribution centers.”
However, many consumers seem to react negatively to artificial intelligence in the physical store space. This has been seen in the general public’s near consistent hatred for chatbots in retail. According to a recent study by Oracle entitled “The Future of Retail,” 79 percent of retail executives believe chatbots are helpful to customers, but 66 percent of customers disagree. In fact, they consider chatbots an unhelpful scourge on the shopping experience, either in-store or online. Only 5 percent of consumers said they’d want more technology enabling them to talk or interact with a robot or chatbot.
However, surveys like this have not discouraged retailers, who believe the potential benefits outweigh any risk of turning away customers. So, adoption of these robots in retail locations across America continues to occur.
Frederic McCoy, Senior Vice President at Jabil Retail, whose Badger Technologies division created a data collection robot, calls the process “optimizing the shelf.” He added that 10 retailers will test the company’s robots this year. “Predominantly grocery, but we’re also looking at the pharmacy space, and we’ve done some trials in home improvement.”

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