Cameras, access control, RFID, etc. are all crucial parts of any loss prevention program. These technologies are tried and true, and will likely always be essential. However, as retail crime continues to evolve, so should the available security solutions.
Today’s retailer must worry about organized retail crime, staffing shortages, curbside pickup, violence against both customers and employees, flash mob robberies, supply chain issues, and more. Thankfully, solution providers have been hard at work developing products tailored specifically for these issues. With artificial intelligence and machine learning finally living up to the potential promised for decades, there is a new kind of LP technology growing in popularity that can help with everything from guarding to inventory control and curbside delivery: robots.
If you’ve been to an LP conference in the past few years, you’ve likely seen a robot or two wandering around the show floor. You may have pulled out your phone and taken a picture but quickly excused it as something the C-suite would never go for. But take a good look at the technology, and you may be surprised by how much potential it has.
In this article, we will look at three different ways robots have the potential to transform your LP program.
One way robots can make a massive impact in the retail space is in place of human guards. According to a 2022 report on security robots, the market was estimated to be worth $31.7 billion in 2022 and was projected to reach $71.8 billion by 2027.
Everon (formerly known as ADT Commercial) established its dedicated Emerging Technologies team and Innovation Lab space in Dallas, Texas about three years ago, and the first project developed was a security robot. Director of Emerging Technologies Strategic Development William Plante said the company aimed to confront the ongoing challenge of high turnover in the security guard market. The result? Earlier this year, the company announced the launch of the EvoGuard brand of intelligent autonomous guarding solutions.
Developed in partnership with Norway-based robotics manufacturer 1x Technologies, EvoGuard is a startlingly human-like robot specifically built for commercial security environments. It has arms, a mouth, eyes, and even eyebrows.
“The goal is for the robot to eventually perform a variety of security services and tasks that are often associated with human security guards,” Plante said. “This may eventually include the ability to remotely verify the accuracy of alarms, where the robot is equipped with 360-degree cameras to allow for efficient evidence data and video capture in a security incident.”
Leveraging what Plante refers to as a “humanoid robot” in lieu of a human guard also allows retailers to document unbiased evidence of crimes and help deter further activity by an intruder. Ultimately, Everon is working toward the potential for future automated robot patrols that can be completed “without distraction.”
Another company making a splash in the guarding robot market is Knightscope. Stacy Stephens, executive vice president and chief client officer at Knightscope, said the genesis of the company came after the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012.
“There had been mass shootings before, but this really captured the nation’s attention,” Stephens said. “As we were watching this unfold, our Chairman and CEO [William Santana Li] was watching with me and he didn’t understand why everyone was staged outside the school and not going inside. I have a background in law enforcement, and as I explained that they had to gather information first, he wanted to know how we could solve that problem. That was the beginning of Knightscope and what we wanted to tackle—how we gain actionable intelligence that allows professionals to act smarter, quicker, and safer.”
This quest started with cameras, but after attending a security conference and seeing how many companies were already working that angle, they switched directions.
“Bill graduated from Carnegie Melon, arguably the number one university for robotics, and I said, ‘People like you have been promising me robots since I was a kid and I don’t have one yet,'” Stephens recalled. “Eight months later we had our first robot.”
Stephens insists Knightscope is not a robotics company, but that robotics is one of the four pillars (alongside AI, self-driving technology, and the electrification of vehicles) on which the company was built. The robots allow them to build a platform at ground-or eye-level for cameras and other detection capabilities.
Knightscope currently has four robots available as a subscription-based service, and while they focused on schools initially, many of their clients are retailers. Some have robots inside stores, but over 65 percent of Knightscope robots are outside—deterring criminals before they even enter the premises.
“So much of LP is focused inside the store, but a really robust security program is layered, and you want to start from the outside, in the parking lot,” Stephens said. “It provides an early warning to those seeking to do harm that there are advanced technologies protecting the facility. Nobody wants to spend time in jail, so it’s likely they will go somewhere else, where that technology doesn’t exist, to commit their crimes.”
Similar to Everon, Knightscope’s robots can also be used in place of security guards, making them more popular than ever post-COVID.
“People started looking to us and asking how we could help them [once the pandemic hit],” Stephens said. “Prior to the pandemic we did a lot of demos with curious people who had little intention of deploying. After COVID-19 they had to find new and innovative solutions.”
Stephens predicts that retail’s interest in security robots will continue to grow exponentially in the near future. “Especially with the ways laws are changing and the burden of proof being more stringent, having that real-time, on-the-ground, eye-level evidence is going to become even more critical,” he said. “We as human beings are very unreliable as witnesses and this technology is incredibly reliable, with near-perfect recall of any incident. Human guards could never tell you [after an incident] who all was in the parking lot, the license plate information of all vehicles in the area, and the suspect’s cell phone information—but a robot can.”
Everon’s Plante agrees, saying the full capabilities of security robots are still unrealized.
“It’s become increasingly clear that retailers see the value in leveraging robotics and drone technologies in their security programs and are evaluating them for a variety of safety, security, and loss prevention applications,” Plante said. “By nature, the emerging technologies area is always evolving—and particularly in this area.
“There’s a real opportunity for robots and drones to provide a solution for the retail industry—and countless others—to fill a gap. That gap exists in the need to cost-effectively and consistently protect the company’s brand, its assets, customers, and employees. But in the current landscape, that can put a strain on resources and budgets. There’s immense value in pursuing AI-powered solutions that could eventually enable and advance retailers’ loss prevention mission with ever-evolving, future forward technologies and applications such as robots that are not nearly as people-dependent and can achieve a higher degree of consistency in detection, protection, and incident response.”
And if you’re thinking the cost of this sort of technology is too much, Stephens urges you to consider the cost of shrink.
“Many retailers have accepted shrink, and they’ve accepted these numbers as a part of doing business,” Stephens said. “I don’t understand that logic and mentality. If you have a big store, it’s not unreasonable to say you have millions or billions of dollars of loss each year. If you stop writing that off as a part of doing business and you invest money in reducing that, your brand will look better, your bottom line will look better—it’s such an optical improvement it becomes a no-brainer to me.”
Keeping track of inventory is one of the more tedious aspects of the retail business, evoking groans from most employees tasked with it. Thankfully its tedious nature makes it perfect for automation—which is why so many inventory control robots are flooding the market right now.
One company navigating that large market is Simbe, and its inventory control robot Tally.
“Our core focus is empowering retailers with greater visibility of what’s happening on their store shelves,” said Simbe CEO Brad Bogolea. “Tally is a fully autonomous mobile scanning platform that leverages computer vision, RFID, AI, and edge computing, so you’re able to understand what’s happening to merchandise in stores.”
Simbe’s primary markets are grocery stores with high-volume low-value items that aren’t great candidates for RFID. However, the company also has clothing store clients where Tally can be integrated with RFID technology.
Like Everon and Knightscope, Simbe’s robots experienced substantial growth post-pandemic.
“We’ve grown 22x since the pandemic,” Bogolea said. “The pandemic shined a light on retailers’ processes around inventory, product control, and dependency on labor, and really highlighted the need for greater automation and data.”
Tally moves up and down store aisles, scanning every product and checking for missing, misplaced, or mispriced items.
“It forces replenishment to happen so that product is back where it needs to be,” Bogolea explained. “And this may not be due to theft. Sometimes product goes into the wrong store, or you pick the wrong unit quantity, etc. By scanning store shelves, we close the data gap and drive greater accountability. When integrated with RFID, we can read every RFID tag.”
In one situation, Tally was deployed in a store where a mass looting incident had occurred; the robot traversed the entire store and understood exactly what products remained, and what was now missing.
“Stores have never been measured at this sort of frequency and fidelity before,” Bogolea said. “We’re scanning stores in their entirety three to four times a day, so for the first time, retailers know the state their stores are in, enabling them to better manage the customer experience. It’s frustrating going to the store and finding the product you want isn’t there. What we often find is that 40-60 percent of these out-of-stocks are controllable, and the product is in the backroom, but no one knows they need to add it to the shelves. There are often hundreds of thousands of products in these stores, so it’s very time‑consuming to do product audits with labor. With Tally you get better data, more optimized labor pull, and more accountability around those pieces.”
Tally also performs price and product location audits. With this new set of data, the robot promises retailers a transformed experience and strong ROI.
Currently, more than a dozen leading retailers are using Tally, with deployments in over half of the US and four other countries. As stores become smarter and more connected, Tally promises to accomplish even more for retailers.
“We consider the LP benefits today to be almost secondary, but as the technology becomes more ubiquitous, the value within LP will only continue to increase,” Bogolea said. “And what we regularly see in stores is this new world of data fusion with computer systems, security systems, and more to help combat ORC by leveraging data.”
Another benefit of Tally is that you can purchase it as a service solution, so it’s not a large, expensive infrastructure project. Bogolea recommends those who are hesitant start by deploying the technology in just a handful of stores.
“Those that are willing to take the leap say it’s an incredibly eye-opening experience,” Bogolea said. “By leveraging this data, you see a strong ROI—often three to four times your ROI in thirty to sixty days—and as you layer these additional solutions the ROI only increases.”
“With the challenges around supply chain, labor shortages, and increased competition, we’ve never had more interest in our business than we do now. We really believe this technology is here to stay.”
For years, companies like Amazon have been attempting to deliver online orders via drone. Unfortunately for them, FAA regulations have proved stickier than expected, and we are still a long way away from that reality. The ground is much more friendly to autonomous solutions though, and robots delivering buy online pickup in-store (BOPIS) orders is a clever baby step.
Post-pandemic, curbside delivery persists as a popular option for consumers. The downside for retailers is that labor is lacking more than ever, and bringing orders out to customers can be time‑consuming for short-staffed teams.
In an attempt to solve this problem, some retailers have created locker systems inside stores where customers can grab their own orders. However, this isn’t as consumer-friendly—they still must enter the store and carry the items to the car themselves.
Enter Ottonomy: a company that built a robot as big as a locker that can deliver online orders to customers’ cars. Co-Founder and CEO Ritukar Vijay said these robots move only three to four miles per hour and carry out hyperlocal deliveries with a radius of 1.5 miles, making them perfect for BOPIS.
“We’re focusing on hyperlocal deliveries at this point because for online deliveries, there are e-commerce giants like Amazon and DoorDash that can already deliver products within an hour,” Vijay said. “There is a unique position for retailers in the next two to three years for harnessing the strength of hyperlocal deliveries.”
Ottonomy robots can carry a much larger load than many other similar offerings in the market, and they can still steer and drive themselves through tight spaces.
“Retailers have tried lockers [for BOPIS], but it has not been successful,” Vijay said. “Those lockers are pretty much static; you still have to go to the locker. Our robot is like a locker on wheels. The mobility adds tremendous value.”
Another unique feature of Ottonomy robots is the screens on them which can display ads, generating revenue for the retailers that own them.
“Brands pay retailers to put their ads on the robots, and then retailers can earn money from the robots, which can be a very healthy circle of economy that improves the supply chain, improves operations, and makes a new revenue stream—you’re getting autonomous robots and making money,” Vijay explained. “Robots are the way to move forward to leverage the full strength of brick-and-mortar stores.”
Have We Piqued Your Interest?
This article only skimmed the surface of what autonomous solutions can accomplish in retail. The technology is rapidly growing in reliability and capabilities, and new robotics companies are popping up every week.
So, if you’re feeling curious about taking the jump into the world of robotics and feeling unsure of how to begin, ask around. You may be surprised which retailers are already using the technology.
“Speak with those who have deployed robots at scale not for the technology’s sake but for the transformative business case and ROI they receive,” said Simbe’s Brad Bogolea. “It’s easy to pick up the phone and we often try to connect prospective customers with existing ones so they can hear how this technology really helped them.”
And if you are already using this technology, don’t be afraid to share your experience, good or bad.
“I understand you want to protect your brand, but sharing information at conferences and through whitepapers is very important,” said Stacy Stephens of Knightscope. “The technology is still in its infancy and can be improved, so all feedback is beneficial. [And if you can’t find a retailer with experience] take fifteen minutes to book a discovery call on our website and show up with an open mind, ready to learn.”