Meet the retail robots that could upgrade the high street

Dean Evans Technology Writer Twitter

One of the key trends at this year’s CES was home robots — the 20-inch high Kuri is like an Amazon Echo with wheels, while LG’s Hub Robot is an animated home companion with Alexa-powered smarts. They’re a significant upgrade over robo-vacs and children’s toys.

But the first bots you encounter might not be in your home. They might be in shops. The kind of shops you might not venture to much any more because you shop online. You might not know it, but the future of retail is looking increasingly robotic and algorithmic. It’s a high-tech upgrade could ultimately save our beleaguered high streets.

We’ve already seen Just Eat delivery robots take to the streets of London and Amazon Prime Air drones take to the skies above Cambridge. We’ve even seen Amazon Go begin to experiment with smart shelving and checkout-less shopping.

Amazon Prime Air
Amazon’s goal is to use drones to safely deliver parcels in 30 minutes to its Prime customers.

Recent developments in AI and robotics have the potential to free up staff, improve business efficiency and improve the shopping experience, bringing people back into brick and mortar stores. The secret to revitalising the high street lies in making the most of data.

At the recent National Retail Federation show (NRF 2017) earlier this year, we had glimpses of what this robo-future might hold. Intel CEO Brian Krzanich demonstrated Simbe Robotics’ Tally, the world’s first robotic autonomous shelf auditing and analytics solution for retail.

Powered by an Intel NUC with a Core i7 inside and equipped with RealSense cameras, Tally can autonomously navigate a store to monitor stock levels, ensuring that products are always available, correctly displayed and accurately priced.

Tally robot retail
Tally by Simbe Robotics is the world’s first robotic autonomous shelf auditing and analytics solution for retail.

Over in the US, San Francisco’s Cafe X has installed a robo-barista to serve customers with greater speed. Also in SF, shoppers who visit a Lowe’s Home Improvement store might be greeted by NAVii robotic staff, aka LoweBots, made by Fellow Robots.

“We designed the NAVii robot to make the shopping experience easier for consumers – simplifying the process of finding the product you’re looking for – while also managing the back-end and keeping shelf inventory up-to-date for the retailer,” said Marco Mascorro, CEO of Fellow Robots.

Back at NRF 2017, Intel also partnered with Shima Seiki to showcase a machine capable of on-demand, in-store 3D knitting. See a jumper you like? Can’t find it in stock? The Mach2XS 153 knitting machine will whip you up a customised, personalised garment in less than an hour.

Technology and robotics have a big role to play behind-the-scenes at retail too. Ocado, for example, is developing a robotic solution to process online shopping orders (no humans required). While the Intel Retail Platform aims to combine RFID, video, radio and other sensors into a 360-degree viewpoint of retail performance from shop floor through the supply chain.

In the future, it’s not so far-fetched to imagine our malls patrolled by robo cops, shopping trolleys that we don’t have to push (they will follow us around) and bots like the Piaggio Fast Forward Gita (pictured top), which will carry our shopping home for us. The best way that traditional stores can remain relevant is to combine the convenience (and data-driven efficiencies) of online shopping with personalisation and customer service.

Perhaps the high street isn’t doomed after all.

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