When I attend Omnichannel events and summits it’s rare that I find truly innovative keynotes and workshops on physical retail. I often hear about the importance of bridging the gap between the online and the offline world, but most of the time the focus is not on the store.

People also talk about measuring touchpoints and making the entire journey seamless. But still most of the store managers in the world lack tools to help them provide the best possible service. The sales operations managers are virtually blind for what happens in the store. And top management lacks the complete picture to drive change and improvements.

Yet, their online counterparts know everything that goes on in the virtual world.

Online I’m recognized and appreciated. I’m greeted by name. I’m offered several interesting things based on my preferences. When I come to check out, all I have to do is breeze through – Often the retailer knows my credit card, where to ship my stuff, my preferred method of shipping and many other things.

Meanwhile, in the physical store, no one takes notice when I arrive. No one knows who I am and why I am there. No one knows how long I’ve have waited for service. No one knows what kind of product I’m interested in.

Does anybody even care?

According to recent data from the U.S. Department of Commerce 93% of all U.S. retail sales come from physical stores. I will say that again, 93% of all retail sales come from the physical stores.

Time to hire a robot to improve store engagement?

The Robots are Coming

Robotics today is a growing industry with applications in myriad markets, including retail, transportation and manufacturing.

We as consumers have evolved to expect more from our buying experience, and retailers are looking to technology to help them deliver on that experience promise. There are currently many interesting initiatives ongoing to explore how robots can be used in retail and the value of it. Two of the best-known examples in the US are Lowe’s and Best Buy.

Lowe’s has been developing OSHbot, a customer service robot that speaks multiple languages and helps shoppers find items, and testing this bot in its stores.

But who really wants to talk to a rolling LCD display?


Lowe’s OSHbot (Image: Lowe’s)

Best Buy’s have begun to introduce robots to supplement or replace store workers. Chloe retrieves products that customers request from a kiosk. Again, an example of a solution that doesn’t engage customers. It’s basically a yellow industrial robot that picks goods like it would be a warehouse.

So, what else is there around?

The Rise of the Social Robot

Pepper, the humanoid robot created by Softbank Robotics is slowly making its way to the US. Pepper is a humanoid robot with artificial intelligence that enables emotion recognition. The robot is already at work in consumer and retail shops as well as in client-facing operations at banks. The strength of this social robot is its ability to interact with humans.

A social robot talks with customers and encourages them to interact.

Softbank’s Pepper (Image:Softbank)

In a store, it attracts people and conveys messages. For instance, it can demonstrate a product’s value and if needed can notify the salesman. Pepper knows when and how long you’ve been in the store, how many products you’ve interacted with, and your general sentiment when interacting with those products. It can also provide gentle and persuasive reminders of in-store promotions.

The idea of robots greeting and assisting customers as they enter a store may seem even more like something out of a Sci-Fi movie than robots performing manual warehouse duties, but it’s starting to happen.

A Telco Case
Elisa, the leading Finnish Telco, is the first retailer in northern Europe to use a humanoid robot in a live retail environment as key part of the customer journey aimed at enhancing personal and engaging interactions with customers.

Pepper in Elisa’s flagship store in Helsinki (Image: Qmatic)

This new and innovative in-store engagement point delivered by Qmatic can interact with customers in a personalized and dynamic way. Supplementing Elisa’s employees Pepper personally greet customers and direct them to the appropriate staff member for service. Pepper also plays a specific role in fulfilling the click and collect process, supporting and checking in customers who have purchased an item online and visit the store to collect it.

Upon arrival at the store, the customer can interact with Pepper and get help to check in for service using information provided during the online purchase confirmation. Pepper relays that information to a store associate who then delivers the product to the customer. Pepper interaction engages the customer personally and advances the brand reputation in a way static solutions like a kiosk or in fact even solution such as OSHBot by Lowe’s can’t.

According to Tiina Kuusisto, Elisa’s vice president of consumer business marketing, customer relations and online sales, Elisa see Pepper as more than just a robot. The social robot is part of their customer service staff and adds value to the smooth customer journey as well as providing new insight into customer behavior.

The Value of a Social Robot
In today’s highly competitive business climate, being able to attract, serve and satisfy more customers is a key to success and increasing revenue. A happy customer is more likely to be a loyal one, a customer coming back to your store. I am convinced that smart robots will play a significant role in physical retail in the future. What we see now is like when the mobile phone was still in its early stage.

But already now it’s easy to find examples how a social robot can benefit your store operations:

1. As Meet and Greeter
The robot can recognize customers and their need. It can check people in for service and connect them to the best available store associate. It can engage in a personal dialogue based on customer profile, past events and state of mind supporting a seamless and personal journey.

2. As a provider of information and recommendation
The robot can provide the customers with relevant information based on their unique customer journey, their profile and purchase history. Driving increased engagement and sales in the store.

3. As a source for customer feedback
It’s straight forward to use the robot to survey customers, to seek their opinions and reviews, helping the retailer to better understand customer perceptions. Doing this in real-time allows the retailer to act in the moment, as events occur.

4. As entertainment
One of the most obvious use cases is of course gaming. The robot is an excellent companion to play games with to increase store engagement. But think about the value if these games are designed to gather information about customer’s perception as they play. The retailer suddenly sits on an amazing opportunity to personally engage with the customer to improve experience and increase sales.

It’s clear that robot developments are already allowing retailers to operate more efficiently and save money. However, retailers must be careful not to “dehumanize” the shopping experience. Social robots are an interesting concept which shows great promise to become an important part of an omnichannel approach.

First published>>