One of the biggest problems in retail today is what to do with the brick-and-mortar store. Retailers have in some ways painted themselves into a corner: the one thing stores have that really could make them stand out from online is employees – except that most retailers have taken too many employees out of stores, leaving customers to fend for themselves. If no one is in the store to help you, why bother coming to the store at all, when you can feasibly get a better experience at home on your computer, or even more ironically, on your phone in the parking lot?
The question retailers now face is, do they add labor back into stores? Do they, even, add more labor into stores to offer differentiating service that can never be met by online? It would require changing the whole labor model for many retailers – from low pay, low training, high turn, to higher pay, much more training, and much less churn.
But, this is the 21st century, and retailers have another option: robots.
I’m not advocating one position or another, for or against robots in the retail selling environment. Ultimately, it is customer acceptance that will determine if robots become a regular fixture in stores. But here are some of the things retailers are trying, right now.
Tracking Inventory On The Shelf
Retailers in fast-moving inventory environments typically don’t have a good handle on their inventory position at the shelf. They know how much they’re selling and they increasingly know when they’re not selling something that they should be selling – usually a hint that the product is out of stock. But in the omni-channel age, actual inventory levels become very important, especially if you want to promise in-store inventory to online shoppers. The less certain you are about what’s on the shelf, the less inventory you can promise to customers and vice versa.
In fashion, retailers are turning to RFID as the way to track inventory in stores. But in grocery and general merchandise, physics still gets in the way. Metal shelves, liquids, cans, all get in the way of the signals, and make it difficult to use RFID. Retailers are searching for ways to get around these problems. One potential solution: robots. The expectation: to troll stores and identify empty spots on shelves.