Robotics and machine vision can take retail customer experience to the next level
Robots helping customers and staff will be commonplace in stores in the near future. Machine vision making sure that wastage is kept to minimum and customers have all the products they want will also soon be run of the mill.
Robots have already emerged in retail. In our recently finished retail store mobile robot pilot, I was delighted to observe how our shelf auditing robot operated smoothly amongst local senior citizens and other customers, politely awaiting its turn to scan the inventory. While not yet a common sight, the robot was already a part of daily life in that store – and it surprisingly got a lot less attention than our photographer, who was lying down on the floor to get a good shot.
Images create experience in retail. Vegetables and fruits are often located right after the entrance to give an impression of freshness and to direct the customer away from everyday life, towards new culinary experiences. The bakery department supplements this experience in its part, for what better advertises freshness than the scent of freshly baked bread or sweet rolls.
There are, however, challenges in keeping up such images and selection, because ever widening opening hours and favouring local produce means retail stores need to actively alter their selection to meet consumer needs. This all requires data and analytics. Traditional customer count, wastage and POS reports do not provide adequately precise and real-time shelf availability information to meet modern business needs. In addition, as digital and traditional stores merge, new needs have arisen for providing information to consumers, stakeholders and staff.
We already use AI every day without noticing
Robots helping customers and staff will be commonplace in stores in the near future. Machine vision making sure that wastage is kept to minimum and customers have all the products they want will also soon be run of the mill. This raises a question: why don’t retail stores and other industries more actively utilise the opportunities brought forth by robotics and machine vision already now? The technology is mature enough. New solutions and innovations could catalyse not only efficient store concepts but also Finnish technology exports – and we should keep in mind that Amazon and other international giants are already taking their first steps in the Nordics with their finely tuned business models.
Finland has a national artificial intelligence programme, which aims at accelerating AI solutions in different sectors. I think the programme’s theme is aptly chosen: AI is the new electricity. In industrial settings and logistics centres robotic are quintessential, and mobile and service robotics and drones are being tested eagerly to solve the challenge of the last delivery mile. Many of us already use AI in our everyday lives without realising it: Apple’s Siri and many other mobile solutions speak fluent Finnish, and numerous robots have been purchased to keep senior citizens company, help them exercise, or provide care.
Robotics free staff for more enjoyable work
In January 2018 I had the opportunity to take part in one of the world’s largest retail fairs, in which robotics and AI were well represented. In the U.S. robots are working alongside retail store personnel in for instance Wallmart and Lowe chains. An estimated one hundred retail stores use shared mobile robotics today to make their business more efficient. The most common use of robots is to optimise shelf auditing and enhance customer experience.
If you count in image analytic solutions, the numbers become gigantic. Traditional surveillance cameras already have in-built versatile analytic solutions. New solutions that are created for certain very narrow purpose to digitize retail stores, are appearing on the market at a regular pace. The central challenge lies in efficient data processing and combining narrow solutions; service robotics can often bring better results without installed technology.
How to navigate ahead in this tidal wave of new solutions? What can you do already now? By taking a step back from individual technological solutions we can identify that the real value resides in guiding with technology, customer service and taking an active approach to solve everyday challenges that the staff is facing. AI and deep-learning neural networks can agilely be fitted to different business challenges.Tieto Adaptive Store solutions enable making service experiences even better for the customers in retail stores. Machine vision and AI based image analytics integrated with business processes create an efficient data source to optimise retail business, while bringing in service robotics based solutions automates tedious and repetitive tasks – and frees staff for more enjoyable and value adding work.
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