Service Robots: A New Trend in Retail?

Various science fiction movies in the ’80s and ’90s imagined a future where robots were abundant, helping out with tasks such as food preparation and crime fighting. While the current state of robotic technology isn’t quite up to that level of service, an increasing number of retail stores are using service robots to interact with guests.

One of the most famous examples of service robots in our world today is Pepper. Pepper, along with five other identical robots, work at the Westfield shopping mall in San Jose, California. From the moment you walk into the mall, Pepper welcomes you to its home in a cherry, uplifting voice. However, Pepper can do more than just greet customers, as the robot can also take surveys about the customer’s shopping experience, direct customers to specific stores and even play games. Westfield CEO Peter Lowy stated at a recent UCLA economic conference, “Sharing data on customers’ habits and behavior changes the economic value of what we do.” This is a large part of why their malls are embracing this technology.

SoftBank went to great lengths to ensure that Pepper is appealing to a general audience. The robot displays emotions in both its eyes and the gestures it makes with its hands, similar to how a real human would act. Pepper can speak in six different languages, allowing it to interact with nearly every shopper who enters the mall. CEO of Westfield, Mr. Peter Lowy has called Pepper a step towards a new wave of technology in the retail space.

In Japan and Europe, SoftBank has been using robots for years in locations such as hotels and cruise ships. The technology is just starting to catch on in the United States, as even major retailers such as Lowe’s Home Improvement are starting to staff robots alongside human beings. In 2016, the home improvement retailer staffed a robot helper in 11 of its stores. This robot, dubbed LoweBot, can perform a wide array of functions. The most basic function the Lowe’s Home Improvement robot can do is personally showing customers where items are at in the store. While the shopper follows the robot, the second screen on the robot’s back will display special offers relating to the item the customer wants to purchase. The robot can also scan the shelves and provide an updated inventory count in under a few seconds.

While many employees worry that robots will take over their jobs, both the manufacturers of the robots and the stores themselves insist that their staff doesn’t have to worry about losing their jobs. The goal of these robots is to provide simple assistance to customers, such as showing customers where they can find the restroom. The robotic support will free up the employees to handle more detailed questions and concerns from other guests. At the end of the day, service robots help provide a better experience for both customers and employees alike.


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