Can IoT-Based Carts Lure Online Shoppers Out Of Hibernation?

What’s in your shopping cart? How about intelligence? For the March Intelligence of Things (IoT) Tracker™, PYMNTS spoke with Wendy Roberts, CEO of robotics firm Five Elements Robotics, about how those plastic and metal shopping carts are ushering in a “robotic revolution” that increases sales and reduces checkout friction. Plus, the latest scoop on wearables, along with news from around the space and profiles of the top IoT providers, inside the Tracker.

Whether in online marketplaces or in the brick-and-mortar space, the best merchants want to make shopping an easier experience for their customers.

In the online world, good eCommerce merchants are looking to build a strong online brand and retain customers in order to provide their consumers easily navigable user experiences with up-to-date pricing and a simple checkout experience, along with the most efficient delivery options.

The same goals apply to brick-and-mortar retailers that are determined to get shoppers to become loyal customers. In the world of physical stores, merchants that strive to keep their store doors open do so by providing their consumers with a shopping experience that allows store visitors to easily find what they’re looking for, pay for their merchandise and move on.

Brick-and-mortar and online merchants alike understand that providing an easier shopping experience for their customers increases the likelihood that the customer will actually return to the store, whether it be an online or offline store. At the same time, sellers in both the digital marketplace and the physical space understand that a poor shopping experience can cause customers to abandon a purchase entirely and walk away from the store empty-handed.

In an effort to address shopping cart abandonment, some companies are seeking to improve the shopping experience by refining the shopping cart itself with connected robotic technology.

One such company, Five Elements Robotics, based in Wall, N.J., is developing a robotic shopping cart that can help customers navigate stores more easily. For the March Tracker feature story, PYMNTS spoke with Wendy Roberts, CEO of Five Elements Robotics, a technology firm that offers robotic solutions, including a robotic nanny and a cart that can follow users and carry their goods for them. Roberts explained how another one of the company’s robotic products aims to reinvent the brick-and-mortar retail experience by revamping the shopping cart itself.

Reinventing the Shopping Cart

The most recent PYMNTS Checkout Conversion Index™ found that 40 percent of online shoppers abandon their shopping carts without making a purchase because of problems with the shopping experience.

In the arena of physical brick-and-mortar retail, Roberts sees a similar pattern, where frustrations with the shopping experience can result in customers walking away from stores without making a purchase. One of the more serious problems customers can encounter when visiting a brick-and-mortar store is not finding the goods they’re interested in buying. If a consumer fails to find items on their shopping list, the physical shop could risk its own failure, she said.

“[About] 85 percent of people will leave the store and not buy anything if they can’t find what’s on their list,” she said. “For retailers, that’s a big problem.”

After failing to find an item on their shopping list, Roberts said that store visitors will only get more frustrated if they then fail to find a sales associate who can help them find the items they’re looking for.

“They have to find the person, and if they can’t find the person, they’re going to leave,” she said. “There’s a lot of business that walks out the door because people can’t find things.”

Five Elements Robotics is hoping to solve that problem with a dose of modern technology. In an effort to help customers find what they’re looking for in a store and let them know if the item is even in stock, the company developed a smart shopping cart known as Dash. The cart features a tablet that allows a customer to choose a shopping list from their smart device or type in their list manually.

The cart is also equipped with a series of sensors and cameras that allows it to map where those items are in the store and pinpoint its position on a store shelf. Once the customer loads their shopping list, the cart can lead them to specific areas of a store using the most effective route. Once they are finished shopping, customers can also pay for the items on the cart’s display instead of waiting in a checkout line.

The Dash cart also help customers outside the store. Once a customer is done shopping, the cart is able to follow customers back to their vehicle so they can load their goods into their trunk. Once the items are unloaded, the cart automatically returns to a docking station in the store in order to make the shopping experience even more effortless for the consumer.

For retailers, Roberts said offering a smarter shopping cart could help address some common issues that customers have with the brick-and-mortar shopping experience, such as finding items on their list or getting help from a store employee. She also anticipates that the “wow factor” of having a robotic cart escorting a customer around a store, proceeding quickly through checkout and bringing items directly to a customer’s car could provide brick-and-mortar merchants with a unique and “fun” way to compete with online retailers.

“The best way to solve [these problems] is right at the cart,” she said, pointing out that some customers will look for shopping carts over sales associates before starting their shopping effort. “The cart is right there when they walk in; it’s the first thing they grab.”

 If You Build It, Will They Come?

Roberts said the Dash shopping cart is scheduled to go into production in the next few months and will arrive in a handful of supermarkets around the country later this year for trial testing.

Once these carts arrive in brick-and-mortar stores, Roberts believes they will not only reinvigorate the shopping experience, but also will entice customers who have been doing most of their shopping online to visit physical shops in person again.

“I think it’s going to encourage people to go back to brick-and-mortar shopping,” she said. “Initially, you’re going to have people flocking to these stores to see these robots just to see what it’s like.”

In addition to the excitement of having a robotic cart assist with their shopping efforts, Roberts also predicted that consumers will experience the fulfillment of finding what they are looking for right away and leaving with their items in hand, something that online shopping can’t deliver.

“What we’re going to see is people who normally would shop online, maybe they don’t want to wait two days to get something,” she said.

Offering these consumers a new shopping experience that enables them to quickly find out if a retailer has the item they are looking for gives them the ability to locate the item, pay for it and leave the store, all with one connected device that can also help them carry their items to the car, which will give these consumers a reason to return to the store again, she said.

“It’s scratching that immediate gratification itch that humans have and taking away the pain that currently [exists] in a standard brick-and-mortar store to even find an item,” said Roberts. “I think it’s going to increase people going to brick-and-mortar stores.”

Robotics Renaissance on the Horizon?

As merchants take an increased interest in connected solutions like robotic shopping carts, Roberts says older shopping carts could face extinction.

“My vision is in the next two to three years you’re going to see these carts infiltrating many large retail stores,” she said.

At first, she expects that stores will offer a few connected carts along with their traditional shopping carts. Eventually, older carts will be phased out and replaced by more advanced solutions.

Roberts sees the introduction of robotic solutions like intelligent shopping carts as the start of something bigger. In what might sound more like a reference to a science fiction movie like “I, Robot,” “Star Wars” or “RoboCop,” Roberts said she thinks merchants and businesses are about to enter a real-life “robotic revolution,” where robotic technology becomes a more common feature of everyday life.

For example, in addition to developing an intelligent shopping cart to help customers fulfill their brick-and-mortar shopping needs, the company has already released another robotic product called Budgee that can follow users wherever they go and carry their stuff. The company is also developing a “nanny assistant” robotic product called 5e NannyBot that can help parents monitor kids remotely. Roberts said Five Elements Robotics is also working on other robotic products for the hospitality industry aimed at helping janitorial staff.

But for the robotic revolution to succeed, Roberts said the technology must be rolled out in the right way.

“We need to proceed with caution,” said Roberts, noting that robotic technology like connected shopping carts will be deployed in retail areas where there are lots of people and with configurations that can change constantly as staffers restock shelves or adjust floor layouts. The retail robots of the near future, it seems, will need to be adaptable.

“They have to be safe; they have to do their job and they have to do their job well for the acceptance to happen,” she said. “We should proceed cautiously until we have the confidence to proceed at a faster scale.”

Until the “robotic revolution” arrives, consumers will have to find the items on their shopping list on their own.

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About the Tracker

The Intelligence of Things Tracker™ showcases companies that are leading the way in all aspects of the Intelligence of Things. Every month, the Tracker looks at what these companies are doing across the ecosystem and in several categories, including Personal, Home, Retail, Transportation, Wearable, Mobile, Infrastructure, Data and more.