The Retail Robot Revolution Is Underway

500 retail robots are being deployed to Ahold USA brand grocery stores. Is that a sign of things to come or an outlier?

retail-robot

Security firms offer them alongside traditional human officers. Select shopping malls are using them. So are some hospitals, warehouses and distribution centers, and office complexes. Target, Ahold USA, and Walmart have tested them. They’ve even spawned supporting technology to help them operate safely. The retail robot revolution, it seems, is underway.

A new market research report by IDC for the Security Industry Association (SIA) predicts that the security robotics market will grow worldwide by more than 20 percent annually over the next five years. Security is a top use case for robotics, according to the study, with more than 40 percent of respondents, when asked about planned uses for robotics, indicating plans to use robots for security. “With security robots’ advanced capabilities and flexibility, it is clear that robotic technology presents an opportunity to the security industry and to our members,” said Don Erickson, SIA’s CEO.

Driving growth is the ability of robots to augment human officers, who have skills robots may never have but also have limitations in sensing and responding to their environments. Robots can see in the dark, pick up signals, and accommodate a variety of sensors, notes the IDC research note, “Extending the Capabilities of Human Security Officers With Modern Robotics.”

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Adoption of robots in retail is expected to accelerate as strategies are developed to justify the investment. One of those, suggests Joyce Lee, head of Google Retail Innovation, could be to reduce shrink. Speaking on a panel at Shop.org, she suggested that a retail robot could provide value in physical stores by more quickly and accurately taking physical inventory.

According to market analysts, the most aggressive early adopters will be businesses that can show clear financial losses due to criminal activity and where robots can reduce risks to workers, by replacing them on patrols in harsh environmental conditions, for example. The fact that machines can operate 24/7 is just another way in which they provide cost-effective force multiplication, say analysts.

Among retailers, robots are most likely to provide value to grocery stores and large retailers with lots of labor, merchandise retrieval, and shelf-stocking requirements, according to Steven Keith Platt, director at the Platt Retail Institute, and research director of the Retail Analytics Council. In a Q&A with STORES, Platt suggests it’s inevitable that store associates and robots will work side by side and that the public will come to accept them. “With robots, there’s a labor cost savings, productivity enhancement, and accuracy enhancement. Robots don’t make mistakes like humans,” he noted.

Radio frequency identification is the next major growth area for robotics, said Platt, allowing retail robot units to autonomously stroll store aisles, tracking inventory, analyzing what’s selling, and locating misplaced items. “The benefits are phenomenal. With RFID, you can go from a once-a-year physical count of inventory to monthly, daily, or even hourly. The benefits of inventory accuracy are huge. That way, you’re not ordering stuff that isn’t selling.”

Today’s mobile security devices have the ability to navigate freely throughout retail environments, collecting data, live streaming and recording eye-level video, acting as two-way intercom devices to speak with customers or warn troublemakers, alerting if someone is an area where no one is allowed, and even heading back to charging pads when’s they’re running low on power.

In an interview last year with LP Magazine, Read Hayes, PhD, CPP, director of the Loss Prevention Research Council, said that perception among both honest shoppers and potential thieves will help determine how pervasive security robots become in retail. A retail robot’s form factor must be welcoming, but also sufficiently robust to seem credible as a security deterrent, he said.

Hayes also sees potential for mobile, autonomous security devices to assist with safety and security functions, such as those that are dangerous or monotonous. Successfully deployed, LP departments could potentially free up human loss prevention (LP) personnel to do what they’re uniquely good at, while taking advantage of the special capabilities of sensor-laced robots. On a parking lot patrol, for example, a mobile unit can use license plate recognition to identify vehicles of interest or track how long a specific vehicle is parked.

In a panel discussion at last year’s ISC West conference, Eric Morse, CPP, senior security manager at Genentech, said that he expects robotics to make significant inroads over the next few years at for robots to be present in every aspect of security within a decade.

It’s not all predictions and possibilities. There are real-world indicators that robots could have a role to play in assisting with security functions in the retail universe. At the upmarket River Oaks District shopping center in Houston, for example, security firm Allied Universal deploys a ROD2 robot from Knightscope to patrol, gather data, and enhance safety. Amazon has reportedly outfitted employees with sensor-enabled safety vests at more than 25 of its fulfillment centers so their robot coworkers can steer clear of them and prevent injuries. And, in January, Ahold Delhaize USA announced that it’s going to deploy 500 robots to its brands, including all 172 Giant Food Stores. “Marty” will be used to alert to hazards, such as liquid, powder, and bulk food item spills, identify out-of-stock items, and conduct price checks.

“Several companies in the grocery retail space have recently begun testing or using in-store robots—something Retail Business Services (RBS) and the local brands we serve have been doing for some time,” said Paul Scorza, EVP and chief information officer for RBS, the services company of Ahold Delhaize USA. “We’re pleased to support the brands as they now lead the industry from test to large-scale usage of robots and to see the benefits the technology continues to drive for their businesses.”

So how does a retailer assess if robots are retail-ready for their purposes? McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm, advocates a five-point evaluation for considering robotic applications:

  • Is it technically feasible?
  • What is the cost?
  • Is there a human labor cost offset?
  • Do its benefits increase productivity?
  • Is there regulatory and social acceptance?

For LP leaders, Hayes advised approaching robotics in the same way as conventional security technologies or strategies. He advised to evaluate: What am I trying to do here? What is my best option for that? What is most cost-effective? and How would I deploy it?

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