OPINIONTechnology

The Downside of Adding Robots to Grocery Stores

New tech may be helpful, but it's not yet perfect

The Lempert Report

The grocery industry is ambitiously stepping up its investment in shopper-facing robot technology, and evidently with much confidence, as it strives to offset the costs of online delivery and pressure from non-supermarket competition.

Retailers overall are investing an estimated $3.6 billion in artificial technology globally and are expected to invest $12 billion by 2023, according to Juniper Research writer Brian Pearson on WiseMarketer.com.

So while most of the attention and press has been focused on robotic warehouses and home delivery, the most exciting robot development is happening in-store.

Walmart has adapted robots to scan and sort inventory and identify shelf items that are out of stock. And at 172 Giant Food Stores in the Mid-Atlantic region, as well as 100 Stop & Shop stores in New England, a pillar-shaped robot named Marty scopes the aisles for hazards such as spills and runs price checks.

Robots can use their high-paced monitoring capabilities to scan and gauge price tags and check accuracy. Stop & Shop’s googly-eyed robot, Marty, for example, could recognize if a price tag has fallen from a display of cereal. It will then snap a photo of the product, forward it to an employee at the company TaskUs, which operates the system from hundreds of miles away, to confirm the problem. Marty then alerts customers and store employees.

The big opportunity, according to Pearson, is to improve the in-store and online shopper experience. Robot artificial intelligence can use algorithms to recall shopper preferences, quickly cross-reference shelf-prices and work around the clock.

But the robots do need some work. In Scotland, shoppers were so turned off by a robot named Fabio they wouldn’t even take free meat from it. First the question-answering robot frustrated and spooked shoppers in the aisles (background noises prevented it from understanding queries). So grocery chain Margiotta stuck Fabio in a corner to give away free samples of shredded meat, and shoppers avoided that aisle all together. The experiment was, well, scotched. Indeed, 95% of consumers said they don’t want to talk to a robot or chatbot while shopping in-store or online, according to a study by Oracle NetSuite. 

Yes the robots are coming, but they need a bit more work before they take over.

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