The Event Horizon of In-Store Retail Automation
It came out of nowhere: A muffled, mechanical voice with electronica undertones called out “Hel-lo there.” It was leering down at me and a few other eTail West attendees: Over 7’6”, a fiberglass robot straight out of a Transformers movie with giant glowing blue eyes and dark mechanical fingers that looked as if they had 300 psi of hydraulic force – enough to crush a car.
Of course, this robot was a ContentSquare-emblazoned suit with a person inside, but the subsequent conversation was surreal. “Can I take a picture?” a fellow attendee blurted out. “Cer-tain-ly. Step ov-er here for a nice-ly lit shot,” in staccato English with the eerie, deep mechanical voice. The neurons in my head started firing.
Suppose this robot was real? The technology is mostly here. We have natural language processing, basic AI functionality, robotic prosthetics, centralized controllers. Now – how about if we gave it a bit more capability – perhaps even manage basic functions in a retail environment. How about pick and pack capabilities, identifying objects on store shelves and labeling processes. What about moving it to the front room and engaging with actual customers? I’m sure it could handle basic questions such as where to find my size 34 jeans or directions to the restroom. Add a camera or two and it becomes a surveillance device as well – mobile and dynamic for loss prevention and security. Maybe even a checkout with a torso based kiosk to scan items and a POS.
Given the upcoming technology drives such as checkout-free technologies as in the experimental Amazon Go store, there would be a real change in the retail workforce, with a focus on automated system maintenance and higher level thinking and service from our retail store associates instead – needing specialized skills, but increasing efficiency and productivity and a richer, more relevant shopper experience.
There is definitely an event horizon coming, where the technology changes will impact us so much that our thinking about shopping will have to be different. My take is that several factors will impact the retail experience soon, including:
- Advanced, AI enabled machinery and robotics to run front end and back end store environments
- Checkout-free store technology using machine learning, item recognition, and automated POS – enabling physical self-service for retail
- Rapid and continuous growth of digital retail (over 10.3% in the US per Forrester's eCommerce Forecast)
- Faster, efficient last mile delivery in heated competition with Amazon distribution
Though some of these capabilities are nascent, they are coming – and with current trends, they may all come at once and relatively soon.
For research on how Forrester sees robots working with white collar workers, please see The Future of White Collar Work Sharing Your Cubicle With Robots by my colleagues Craig Le Clair and J. P. Gownder.