To help retailers explore their options, international design and innovation consultancy designaffairs has created a generic first—a multipurpose fleet platform that houses an ecosystem of multisensorial robots that do just about everything a robot can do for retail stores … with one significant ‘humane’ twist. Interested? Join me as I dive deeper into the opportunities.
While retail robotics is not a new concept, it’s been slow to take off among traditional retailers. Key challenges include the cost, complexity and effort involved in the adoption of robotic solutions, not least the disruptive adaptation of current infrastructure and staffing that it implies. To address this, designaffairs’ fleet solution offers a simple and elegant step forward for the emerging retail-as-a-service (RaaS) environment.
Introducing disruptive technologies and processes is one thing but we would not be doing our job responsibly without putting serious efforts in addressing the technological unemployment challenge. After all, isn’t it the same old story we see on the news over and over again, where already precarious human jobs are being replaced by new, more efficient machines and software?
How does fleet meet all these variables? It is a modular, multifunctional, data- and analytics-driven robotic solution that can be tailored for specific markets. Most importantly, it can easily scale to meet the needs of changing times and environment, keeping retailers one step ahead on both business and employment fronts.
Healthier, more sustainable businesses
The retail sector is being disrupted by new technologies, with traditional retailers facing intensifying competition, price pressure and margin drops. In addition, consumer preferences are shifting, with online shopping and ultra-convenience topping their lists.
What does this portend for traditional retailers? In the near future—the next three to six years—a significant portion of their revenues will leak to discount, online and non-grocer retailers, resulting in the inevitable collapse of some of these businesses. Automation and robotics can help them fight back, hold their ground and reposition for future competitiveness.
Using new technologies to ‘fix the shelf’ is one example.
According to specialists, shelf space planning and planogram optimization can decrease out–of–stock levels by 25 percent, and increase inventory levels by 2 percent. Acosta’s Shelf Management Report notes that manufacturers spend $100 billion annually on promotions versus $300 million on shelf management, yet shelf management accounts for 66 percent of sales and 85 percent of profits.
Fixing the shelf, can yield a 6 percent sales lift.
This is something retail robotics—through in-store sensors, RFID, analytics, inventory and shelf management—can help with.
Great! We found a solution to the revenue problems – robots it is. Well yes and no.
While technological progress is fast, retail robots and robotics remain expensive and limited in their functionality. In addition, these solutions are often still in their infancy.
More robots, but not yet so smart
Researchers note that AI technologies like deep learning, computer vision, and natural language processing (NLP) are revolutionizing autonomy and UI/UX capabilities in robotics. These advances are expected to more than double the number of non-industrial robots for professional and consumer applications in the next five years. For retail, this could include on-premises services, spontaneous purchases, facility maintenance, additional customer services and even air deliveries.
Symbotic LLC, a supplier of warehousing automation, offers a very tangible peek into the future of retail. It has created an autonomous robot so fast that up to 80 percent of current warehousing workforce tasks can be automated, and the warehouse footprint can be reduced by 25 to 40 per cent. ABI Research estimates that more than 150,000 mobile robots will be deployed in brick-and-mortar retail establishments by 2025. This tells us that robots are useful and adoption will undoubtedly grow.
A multitude of startups and tech companies like Symbotic LLC are launching around the world, inventing great new robots that target very specific use case. Right now, they can be used to clean spills, for inventory management, to move goods, and even direct customers. They are valuable when applied by companies like Amazon to address particular challenges. However, wider adoption will take time.
While there are more complex operations on the horizon, today’s robots cannot deliver more than one or two functions. Taking into account conception and development, testing and analysis, geographic adaption and deployment, regulation and certification, it’s not unrealistic to think that the industry as whole will not change overnight.
I believe we are looking at a period of five to 10 years for full, mainstream adoption of robotics in the retail environment.
This gap gives us a chance to create a more ‘humane’ retail robotics adoption model—one that’s aligned to market change rather than compels drastic change.
Loss of jobs to technological advancement is not new. Humankind has dealt with it since the invention of the wheel, possibly earlier. Before us lies the next wave. designaffairs’ fleet vision for the retail space is to make good use of this early period and shifting landscape in the retail space to strategize, build, test, analyse, iterate, repeat to help companies find a more sustainable retail employment and service model.
The new model we propose will provide an alternative strategy to current retailer practices that, in addressing new market pressures, variously hurt employees with low wages and bad working conditions, punish customers with increased prices and lackluster service, or fundamentally kill the business itself by cutting off growth.
While Symbotic’s 80 percent labor task cut suggests massive layoffs and a robot takeover, it’s not all black and white in practice. The slow technological maturation period we are experiencing is the perfect time to organically reduce headcount via the natural high turnover of ‘low skill’ jobs … while at the same time implementing an ecosystem of hard– and software to sustain sales growth and usher in the new retail-as-a-service era.
What about the human touch? Surely robots cannot deliver the same level of services than humans can? You are 100 percent right—at least for the foreseeable future! Reducing headcount does not mean eliminating it entirely.
designaffairs sees massive potential for re-training and re-skilling part of the current workforce to accomplish more customer–centric tasks.
When supermarkets opened, putting lots of local business in difficulties, I believe we lost a real sense of savoir-faire, proximity and qualitative service for the sake of convenience. In-store robotics offers us the opportunity to bridge this gap, enjoying the best of both worlds—i.e., efficiency, lower costs and ultra-convenience with a human touch.
This is the proposition we present to retailers with our fleet ecosystem – a novel, humane business strategy enabled by smart robotics.
So, what is fleet exactly?
fleet is an ecosystem of multisensorial robotic platforms and extensions augmented by data science. It is modular, smart, and is designed to deliver value-driven solutions. It is extremely versatile and will give any business an edge over the competition.
It comprises a base unit, an intelligent autonomous platform able to transport various items, including shelves. This base platform can also be kitted with various extensions—e.g., a workstation, a mechanical arm, a refrigerated unit for fresh food and drink deliveries, an electric vehicle (EV) charging station and more. Our team identified over 15 different extensions and use cases with high potential to diversify revenue streams.
fleet is a work in progress. Solutions are continuously being imagined and prototyped with hard and software models. With every new extension we add, the platform becomes smarter. This, I believe, is the most effective way to build robotic systems that can evolve to meet retailers’ changing needs.
The smartness of fleet does not only rely on its engineering and autonomous prowess, though. The modularity drives costs down significantly as stores need to be able to achieve multiple tasks a day, but not necessarily all at the time.
- Cleaning the floor generally happens twice a day, with occasional spills throughout the day.
- Reshelving can be done at night and avoided as much as possible while clients are shopping.
- Delivery services could run all day while barely at night.
Not only do you save tremendous amount of precious space by being able to switch addons on the same mobile platform, there is also a second advantage—scaling. fleet has the power to grow and evolve over time, with the store, the branch and the brand.
Our retail clients tell us that one problematic aspect of new tech is that when a new solution is proposed to them, they have to make a bet—will this technology have longterm benefits for my stores? What happens when a competitor comes up with something better? Will I be locked in by a single brand? Will my team need to be trained on all this different software to manage all my robots?
We conceived fleet with these questions in mind. Thanks to its modularity and scalability, the ecosystem can be tailor–made for retailers’ specific needs. In a best-case scenario, we co-create a fleet ecosystem with our clients.
What is fleet able to do?
fleet delivers across 3 important areas of value for retailers: automation, commercial effectiveness, and ultra-convenience.
1. Automation. fleet can automate up to 50 percent of instore tasks currently done by human workers. These include shelf management, dynamic floor planning, reading RFID tags and weight sensors, self-checkout, cleaning, in-store inventory and fulfilment, and picking and packing products for delivery. The value-add is significant, freeing up store workers to do higher value tasks.
2. Commercial effectiveness. In terms of improving commercial effectiveness, fleet can assist retailers to implement store-specific planograms, ensuring slotting or listing fee updates using RFID and electronic shelving. It can do live inventory updating and improve display placement for increased impact throughout the day, the week or seasonal events.
3. Ultra-convenience. fleet offers retailers several solutions that deliver ultra-convenience. These include self-checkout, a robot following customers with a connected cart, recipe crafting while shopping, item suggestions based on precedence, autonomous home deliveries or spontaneous street purchasing. fleet provides the brand experience needed to re-inspire loyalty in customers. With the added benefit of an improved service via store clerks that are fully at one’s disposal, ultra-convenience can also take the shape of a personal shopping assistant and companion.
In order to organize all these tasks and control the fleet of robots, the ecosystem is governed by adaptable software and an easy–to–learn mobile interface. Thanks to the various anonymous data points collected by the robots throughout the day and the store, the software is able to refine its plans and predictions, and offer the best advice to store, branch and brand managers. They have full control of how fleet is operated through the store – from scheduled tasks and report reviews to full autonomy activities. Moreover, as the hardware scales and evolves over time, so does the software, with frequent additions to fleet’s capabilities, further refining the services offered.
Want to understand how fleet could help you? designaffairs is offering hands-on demos. Get in touch with us by contacting BD[at]designaffairs.com if you want to experience the future first hand.