The Irresistible Rise of Robot Retail

The Irresistible Rise of Robot Retail

The home improvement chain Lowe’s announced last week that it will roll out a autonomous retail service robot called “LoweBot” at 11 stores in the San Francisco Bay Area this fall:

LoweBot will add a layer of support to amplify the trusted advice of Lowe’s employees as it helps customers with simple questions, enabling more time for employees to focus on delivering project expertise and personalized service. Having the ability to scan inventory and capture real-time data with LoweBot will also help detect patterns or gaps that will ultimately influence business decisions.

BI Intelligence depicts this move as part of a trend of retailers embracing robots and automation as a way to remain competitive in the e-commerce era:

Home improvement retailers have been able to combat the “Amazon Effect” because their customers still need to physically browse products — like paint colors or appliances — in-store before making a purchase. The LoweBot will help push Lowe’s into the digital space, while retaining its in-store value to customers.

Overall, robotics are beginning to make significant waves in the retail industry. With wages rising, retailers are trying to boost margins by replacing workers with robots. In addition, the novelty factor could potentially drive more foot traffic, particularly if the robots provide impressive customer service. There aren’t many robots in brick-and-mortars yet, though, as the technology is being adopted more to drive up efficiency in shipping and logistics.

On that note, Walmart is eliminating 7,000 back-of-house accounting and invoicing positions in its stores, the Wall Street Journal reports, and either centralizing or automating the work they do instead:

The jobs are coveted as a rare desk job in retail. “You are not running around the store on your feet all day” and receive decent pay, said a Wal-Mart store accounting employee who earns about $13 an hour, or $27,000 a year. “Everybody wants to get in there. The jobs never open up,” said this person, who has worked at the store for nine years. The back-office cuts to Wal-Mart’s 4,600 U.S. stores is a sign that retail workers—one of the largest employee cohorts in America—face big changes as their employers spend heavily to compete with Inc. and grab foot traffic from other chains.

The positions Wal-Mart is eliminating manage an individual store’s daily cash flow or process claims from manufacturers delivering goods directly to stores, among other tasks. Starting early next year, much of that work will be handled by a central office or new money-counting “cash recycler” machines in stores. Wal-Mart tested the change in about 500 stores earlier this year.

This change comes not long after Walmart came in for some praise for investing in higher wages for many of its store employees, which the big-box chain believes has contributed to strong earnings this year. Walmart, like other major brick-and-mortar stores, is threatened by the growth of e-commerce and the dominance of Amazon; it recently acquired e-tail startup and tapped its CEO Marc Lore to lead Walmart’s entire online operation.

Of course, at the same time as these retailers are investing in automation to better compete with Amazon, Amazon is developing robots of its own.