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4 Ways Social Robots Improve Customer Experience in Retail Stores 

Sven-Olof Husmark, Husmark | Oct 20, 2016 1,518 views 13 Comments

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When I attend Omnichannel events and summits it’s rare that I find truly innovative keynotes and workshops on physical retail. I often hear about the importance of bridging the gap between the online and the offline world, but most of the time the focus is not on the store.

People also talk about measuring touchpoints and making the entire journey seamless. But still most of the store managers in the world lack tools to help them provide the best possible service. The sales operations managers are virtually blind for what happens in the store. And top management lacks the complete picture to drive change and improvements.

Yet, their online counterparts know everything that goes on in the virtual world.

Online I’m recognized and appreciated. I’m greeted by name. I’m offered several interesting things based on my preferences. When I come to check out, all I have to do is breeze through – Often the retailer knows my credit card, where to ship my stuff, my preferred method of shipping and many other things.

Meanwhile, in the physical store, no one takes notice when I arrive. No one knows who I am and why I am there. No one knows how long I’ve have waited for service. No one knows what kind of product I’m interested in.

Does anybody even care?

According to recent data from the U.S. Department of Commerce 93% of all U.S. retail sales come from physical stores. I will say that again, 93% of all retail sales come from the physical stores.

Time to hire a robot to improve store engagement?

The Robots are Coming

Robotics today is a growing industry with applications in myriad markets, including retail, transportation, manufacturing, and even as personal assistants.

We as consumers have evolved to expect more from our buying experience, and retailers are looking to technology to help them deliver on that experience promise. There are currently many interesting initiatives ongoing to explore how robots can be used in retail and the value of it. Two of the best-known examples in the US are Lowe’s and Best Buy.

Lowe’s has been developing OSHbot, a customer service robot that speaks multiple languages and helps shoppers find items, and testing this bot in its stores.

But who really wants to talk to a rolling LCD display?

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Lowe’s OSHbot (Image: Lowe’s)

Best Buy’s Chloe is another example of a retailer that have begun to introduce robots to supplement or replace store workers. Chloe retrieves products that customers request from a kiosk. Again, an example of a solution that doesn’t engage customers. It’s basically a yellow industrial robot that picks goods like it would be a warehouse.

So, what else is there around?

The Rise of the Social Robot

Pepper, the humanoid robot created by Softbank Robotics is slowly making its way to the US. Pepper is a humanoid robot with artificial intelligence that enables emotion recognition. The robot is already at work in consumer and retail shops as well as in client-facing operations at banks. The strength of this social robot is its ability to interact with humans.

A social robot talks with customers and encourages them to interact.

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In a store, it attracts people and conveys messages. For instance, it can demonstrate a product’s value and if needed can notify the salesman. Pepper knows when and how long you’ve been in the store, how many products you’ve interacted with, and your general sentiment when interacting with those products. It can also provide gentle and persuasive reminders of in-store promotions.

The idea of robots greeting and assisting customers as they enter a store may seem even more like something out of a Sci-Fi movie than robots performing manual warehouse duties, but it’s starting to happen.

A Telco Case

Elisa, the leading Finnish Telco, is the first retailer in northern Europe to use a humanoid robot in a live retail environment as key part of the customer journey aimed at enhancing personal and engaging interactions with customers.

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Pepper in Elisa’s flagship store in Helsinki (Image: Qmatic)

This new and innovative in-store engagement point delivered by Qmatic can interact with customers in a personalized and dynamic way. Supplementing Elisa’s employees Pepper personally greet customers and direct them to the appropriate staff member for service. Pepper also plays a specific role in fulfilling the click and collect process, supporting and checking in customers who have purchased an item online and visit the store to collect it.

Upon arrival at the store, the customer can interact with Pepper and get help to check in for service using information provided during the online purchase confirmation. Pepper relays that information to a store associate who then delivers the product to the customer. Pepper interaction engages the customer personally and advances the brand reputation in a way static solutions like a kiosk or in fact even solution such as OSHBot by Lowe’s can’t.

According to Tiina Kuusisto, Elisa’s vice president of consumer business marketing, customer relations and online sales, Elisa see Pepper as more than just a robot. The social robot is part of their customer service staff and adds value to the smooth customer journey as well as providing new insight into customer behavior.

The Value of a Social Robot

In today’s highly competitive business climate, being able to attract, serve and satisfy more customers is a key to success and increasing revenue. A happy customer is more likely to be a loyal one, a customer coming back to your store. I am convinced that smart robots will play a significant role in physical retail in the future. What we see now is like when the mobile phone was still in its early stage.

But already now it’s easy to find examples how a social robot can benefit your store operations:

1. As Meet and Greeter

    The robot can recognize customers and their need. It can check people in for service and connect them to the best available store associate. It can engage in a personal dialogue based on customer profile, past events and state of mind supporting a seamless and personal journey.

2. As a provider of information and recommendation

    The robot can provide the customers with relevant information based on their unique customer journey, their profile and purchase history. Driving increased engagement and sales in the store.

3. As a source for customer feedback

    It’s straight forward to use the robot to survey customers, to seek their opinions and reviews, helping the retailer to better understand customer perceptions. Doing this in real-time allows the retailer to act in the moment, as events occur.

4. As entertainment

    One of the most obvious use cases is of course gaming. The robot is an excellent companion to play games with to increase store engagement. But think about the value if these games are designed to gather information about customer’s perception as they play. The retailer suddenly sits on an amazing opportunity to personally engage with the customer to improve experience and increase sales.

It’s clear that robot developments are already allowing retailers to operate more efficiently and save money. However, retailers must be careful not to “dehumanize” the shopping experience. Social robots are an interesting concept which shows great promise to become an important part of an omnichannel approach.

WATCH PEPPER VIDEO – RETAIL USE CASE EXAMPLES >>

What do you think, will robots play a role in retail – how?

Image Courtesy: Qmatic, Softbank Robotics, Lowe’s

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13 Responses to 4 Ways Social Robots Improve Customer Experience in Retail Stores

  1. Michael Lowenstein October 21, 2016 at 8:50 pm (1317 comments) #

    If a robot can personalize the retail shopper experience, thus adding value, then this is progress. If not, it could be Hal.

  2. Sven-Olof Husmark October 22, 2016 at 1:31 am (29 comments) #

    Michael, thanks for your comment. It goes without saying that no one beats a human when it comes to personal interaction; but there are two things at play here. 1) In many cases when we visit retail stores we don’t get the help and/or service we expect. 2) Store associates when they do meet customer don’t have the tools/information needed to provide the best possible service. What we have seen experimenting very early with humanoid robots (robots with the capability to for example learn and recognize human emotions) is that there seems to be an opportunity to use them in the service mix. People get much more engaged and involved than with for example a kiosk and the interact longer and also leaving with a positive feeling. And it’s consistent (which a group humans seldom are). Of course they can’t replace a human, but used well it actually has merits even if it’s still early days.

  3. Michael Lowenstein October 22, 2016 at 9:41 am (1317 comments) #

    Just hope that, with greater robot sophistication, it doesn’t devolve into https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SYgWHwMm9Uo

  4. Sven-Olof Husmark October 23, 2016 at 11:13 am (29 comments) #

    If it does I’m sure we will have other things to discuss than seamless and personal journeys 😉

  5. Bob Thompson October 23, 2016 at 10:49 pm (226 comments) #

    Sven-Olof, I’m sure robots will become part of our lives eventually. But I’m a skeptic that in the near term that they will be truly “engaging.”

    I visited a local Best Buy recently and had a great experience. Was greeted when I walked in. Visited 3 departments (TV, PC/printer, and fitness tracking devices) and in each case someone approached me, answered a bunch of detailed questions, and helped me make a purchase. No hard sell. Very engaging. I will go back.

    I seriously don’t see how a robot could have helped in any of these scenarios. I had already done research online but was still confused about a few things.

    Sure there are applications for robots to handle routine tasks and save time of those expensive humans. But the cost will be lower levels of genuine engagement and loyalty.

    If I go to a store, what I expect are real people who know what they are talking about. If Best Buy replaces them with robots, I might as well just talk to Amazon.

  6. Andrew Rudin October 24, 2016 at 8:17 am (240 comments) #

    Hi Sven-Olaf: Despite the data and clickstream analyses, I think the ‘complete picture’ of buying you describe has yet to be realized by online retailers. I have yet to talk with any senior online executive who feels he or she could not benefit from better (or more) insights.

    But even if online retailers did enjoy such a powerful strategic advantage over bricks-and-mortar retailers, I don’t think that alone makes a compelling case for deploying more robotics and customer surveillance in the store. At least not without figuring out whether more of it provides benefits for customers – or is even something customers want.

    Many automation proponents see the trajectory for customer acceptance of automation positively sloped ad infinitum. I believe this is a dangerous delusion, because in retail and elsewhere, we haven’t probed hard enough into where the inflection point exists. And my belief is that it does. I don’t consider consumer appetite for “interacting” with technology to be boundless. I agree with a couple of your points about how robotics can improve shopping experiences. But how much investment will retailers risk in shiny robotic objects before the whole thing backfires? I’m not sure, but I have little doubt that it will.

    One thing that buttresses my concerns are the uses of the term interaction and its derivatives, which I counted eight times in this article. Personally, the word leaves me a bit chilly. Is that really what makes customers feel happy in a retail store – interaction? Is that the bar retailers have set for themselves – better interactions? Where are we headed when Emotion recognition replaces empathy? If these terms become entrenched in our customer vocabulary, I think all the humanity has just been sucked out of the vendor-consumer relationship. If I were a retail CEO bent on improving my relationships with my customers, I’d find reason to worry.

  7. Sven-Olof Husmark October 24, 2016 at 1:42 pm (29 comments) #

    Andrew, thanks for your comments 🙂

    I see where you are coming from and I agree with some of your points, especially that emotion recognition can’t replace empathy. But come on, how often do you feel empathy embracing you when you go shopping in stores – robots or not?

    What I tried to convey in short is;

    1) Online typically knows more that Physical about customer interaction and engagement with the brand.
    2) I don’t think companies invest enough in innovation in Physical – this is an opportunity
    3) Robots are starting to come around (early but it will grow). Even if not perfect, it’s at least in some way innovative and it is more engaging than some alternatives – NOT over humans – well maybe sometimes.

    My company work with retailers in more than 100 countries helping them to improve customer journeys with aid of technology. Having met with major retailers over the years, both with the people in charge for online/e-commerce initiatives and the people in charge of the physical stores, I have yet to meet a store manager that claims to know more about what goes on in his stores than his counterpart online. If you have examples of the opposite I would love to hear about them.

    What inspired me to write this article is that my company have delivered a social robot to a leading telecom provider performing a very specific task in the store – checking in customers who are there to pick up items purchased online – giving them as a smooth ride in the physical world as the purchase online was.

    Another example is for example Carrefour in France that have deployed some 30 social robots in their stores at multiple departments primarily focusing on informing and advising customers in the store. They have seen some very interesting positive results from this including increased engagements with the visitors.

    The whole point with these social robots today is NOT to try to be human or emphatic. You get that it’s machine – but they are a whole lot cooler and more engaging than a kiosk for example.

    Andrew, if you worry that they will not become extremely sophisticated, maybe even bordering to emphatic – think again and read a bit what for example Elon Musk and Bill Gates have to say about the topic of AI.

    P.S. I used “interact” 8 times. I also used the word “engage” 8 times 🙂

  8. Sven-Olof Husmark October 24, 2016 at 2:18 pm (29 comments) #

    Bob, in this specific scenario I would agree with you 100%. Nothing beats really good service in the store with employees that are attentive, engaging and knowledgeable.

    But I will also challenge you a bit 🙂

    – Will a 18 year old always see it in the same way?

    My son rather use chat functions online, he visits forums, he find out information himself…and god forbid if he have to talk to someone – that’s a huge disadvantage from a service point of view. The fact that we have a whole generation that is born digital will that change preferences going forward? Will they be more prone to engage in new ways?

    – Are all people at Best Buy equally good?

    One of the key challenges for retailers is that we as consumers have an upper hand. Often we know more about the products in the store than the associates. This is why for example we at Qmatic see a big uplift for solutions that equip the workforce with mobile applications with access to vital information about products and the customer in front of them.

    Nothing beats a social robot in consistency this is why they for example get amazing results using them in treatments for autistic kids.

    What happens when the robot can answer all the questions you are there for in a smart and efficient way and you at the same time are able to touch and feel the products – which you can’t at Amazon…wouldn’t you rather do that and spend time engaging with people you know elsewhere?

    The robots we see in the market today will not in anyway support the journey you describe. They are more stationary and in many cases quite linear in the dialogue. And if you have engaged 2-3 times with the robot in a static way you will be less interested to do it a 4th time. Then you would rather speak to a human being I guess…or as my son…find out for himself with the guidance of his mobile device.

    My take on this as I wrote in my article – it’s early days. Personally I see it now as a complement to other solutions and to real human beings – not as a substitute. Mind you though, in Japan you will soon be able to visit a store only served by social robots – guess you and I will get lost in translation there Bob 🙂

    Regardless, it will be interesting to follow the development.

  9. Bob Thompson October 24, 2016 at 9:29 pm (226 comments) #

    Sven-Olof, in general I agree with you that robots will have a future in retail stores.

    I think what bothers me is the term “social robot” which, along with the humanoid forms in your images, implies a level of human engagement and empathy that seems unlikely. Unless someday robots are as life-like as those in the new HBO “Westworld” series.

    I think you make too much of the “millennials like technology” meme. Sure they do, but many studies find they also want to talk to people for certain types of interactions. And some boomers like me go to great lengths to self serve via technology.

    The differences between generations are overblown. What is a bigger driver of channel preference is not age but the job-to-be-done.

    I don’t go to a retail store because I’m a boomer and can’t figure out how to buy on Amazon or elsewhere. Seriously, I’ve been using tech aggressively for more years than millennials have been alive. What matters is I get an experience at a retail store that provides value I need in certain situations, that I can’t get online.

    The more stores automate and take humans out of the experience, the more they become like Amazon, and then why go to the store?

    Again, there are plenty of jobs for technology, and it’s early days for the so-called robots. Retailers that win long term will make sure they don’t undermine the very reason people go to stores, by getting rid of the human element.

  10. Sven-Olof Husmark October 25, 2016 at 1:08 am (29 comments) #

    Bob, well put 🙂

  11. Ian Mapp November 17, 2016 at 7:05 am (2 comments) #

    My guess is that a fully capable social robot is some way off still. And it begs the question as to whether the purpose of the robot is to put a more ‘human’ face onto the delivery of the service, or whether it is simply a device to smooth the interaction/transaction and minimise customer effort.

    If the latter, then it does not need to be a stand-alone robot, in the sense of a humanoid shaped device. We are all well trained in interacting with flat, 2-D devices on phones and tablets and there is certainly lots of scope to increase the emotional asepct of touch-screen user-interactions to deliver an equivalent level of seamless flow in the journey. And, leave the empathy to the humans – who are well practiced at it, or should be!

  12. Sven-Olof Husmark November 18, 2016 at 2:19 am (29 comments) #

    Ian, thanks for your comment. I do agree that robots are in no way capable of being humane today. I do however see a significant increase how customer engage and interact with a humanoid vs for example flat 2D screens in store environments. They can also perform “tasks” in stores that non-integrated flat devices like customer’s mobile phones and/or digital signage screens can’t. It’s going to be interesting to follow the development and where this takes us… last week I listened to a “bot” on the phone and it was really hard to identify it as a computer talking on the other side…as these technologies improve, humans and tech will integrate in ways that they’ve never done before. Is this good or bad?….that is a really interesting topic to discuss.

  13. Ian Mapp November 18, 2016 at 7:53 am (2 comments) #

    Sven-Olof, maybe there is a halfway house? An animated figure, interacting by voice and/or touch and reacting in real-time to the ‘conversation’ … but presented on a 2D screen in-store? As a meet/greeter with an objective to speed the customer into their transaction as smoothly as possible – with some lightness of touch introduced by using human/humanoid figure rendition.

    So, a ‘bot’ in the sense of quasi-intelligent behaviour – rather than a stepwise forms-based UI – but not a robot in the independent physical sense (although there is some entertainment/novelty value that should not be under-estimated).

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