COVID-19 could mark the true rise of the robots in retail. As warehouse workers strike for better protective equipment and consumers show increased sensitivity around handling food, several new examples of robots filling in have emerged over the past few weeks.
The robotic rise can be seen in two key areas: fulfillment and in-store. As an example, Ocado, Britain’s leading online grocer, has had to stress-test an experimental program to automate its warehouses. After seeing an initial crash due to unprecedented demand when the COVID-19 crisis hit, the retailer is now using robots to pick and pack customer orders. Meanwhile, according to reports, retailers including Walmart and Amazon have already implemented mobile robots in their retail stores and warehouses to handle such essential functions as materials handling, inventory tracking and cleaning.
“Autonomous service and delivery robots are poised to better serve – and possibly save – retailers,” noted a report in Robotics Business Review. “Some industry analysts have predicted that robotics in retail will be involved in more than three-quarters of logistics operations, with McKinsey estimating that autonomous vehicles will make up 80 percent of deliveries by 2025.”
It is also rising on the sales floor. For example, Target is using a robot called Tally to monitor inventory and pricing. Tally had its test run at a Target store in San Francisco, although the company has not announced plans to expand as of yet. Badger Technologies is a division of Jabil that said it offers end-to-end systems, including robots and software for inventory, store integration, maintenance, and analytic. Badger has taken its robotics technology to Ahold Delhaize, a consortium that includes Giant Foods, Martin’s and Stop & Shop supermarkets. They are all deploying about 500 versions of Marty, a six-foot-tall robot that looks for spills and other potential hazards.
While robots can pick and pack, one of the more underrated applications lies in data. “Robots are possibly the most minimally invasive way to start recording data at scale,” noted a report in Chain Store Age. “This is true because they don’t require any major changes in how customers shop or employees work. Yes, humans have to get comfortable with robots roaming the aisles, but that is a one-time event. All other customer and employee behavior remains unchanged. And, honestly, how much is there to get used to if one robot roams a 30,000-square-foot grocery store? It’s like worrying about the mechanical window washer on the outside of a skyscraper. It is just something to which people will get accustomed, something that will become blasé.”
The issue to watch is consumer perception. Before the crisis, U.S. consumers showed a negative stance toward robots at retail, but it will be interesting to see if that changes post-COVID. A Pew Research project showed that consumers were concerned about robots taking jobs from humans. However, consumers supported the idea that robots and computers could do jobs that are dangerous or unhealthy for humans. Fully 85 percent of Americans favor this type of policy, with nearly half (47 percent) saying they favor it strongly. COVID-19 would certainly fill the bill.
Phil Duffy, VP of product management and marketing at retail automation company Brain Corp, believes that retailers will adopt a different mindset on the other side of the coronavirus crisis.
"We believe people are already developing a more positive attitude toward robots,” Duffy said in a statement to Forbes. “As we have seen in the last few weeks, humans need help during a crisis like this one, and autonomous mobile robots have the ability to support them in meaningful ways, like BrainOS-powered robots cleaning store floors. We still need a human involved, but we will be more effective if we bring in robots to help us with tasks they are good at, such as floor cleaning and moving inventory, so that humans can focus on other tasks that robots are not able to do or do not do well.”