Retail robots could enhance customer service operations

The use of robotic technologies in manufacturing and warehousing operations is not a new concept. As these automated systems evolve and create more productive workflows, there is a growing concern that artificial intelligence may slowly be taking job functions away from people. And this fear might soon be intensified, since an increasing number of robots are emerging from behind the scenes to handle customer-facing relations.

Innovating retail supply chains
Fast Company recently reported that a business arm of Lowe's Hardware Store, Orchard Supply Hardware, has started to use "OSHbot," an autonomous robot, to handle everything from customer service to inventory management.

According to the source, the multilingual robot uses both navigational and face-recognition technology that allows it to interact with shoppers, not only telling them where a certain item is, but accompanying them to the appropriate location in the store. In addition, it is able to provide real-time inventory tracking and alerts employees when a product needs to be re-stocked. The device was created by Lowe's Innovative Labs Executive Director Kyle Nel, who explained that the concept of OSHbot stemmed from science fiction writers he worked with in the past.

"The real-time inventory thing in retail is like the holy grail," Nel told the source. "Right now, inventory tracking at all retailers is a very tedious and very time-consuming and inaccurate process, so we're trying to attack that."

OSHbot is not the first robot to be used to improve retail supply chain operations. In a white paper, Tata Consultancy Services pointed out that Hointer, a Seattle clothing company, uses robots to bring apparel to the changing rooms at the store. And, according to the source, this is just the beginning.

TCS said that these autonomous robots are expected to provide retail businesses with distinct value in both internal and external operations, because they possess a wide range of advantages. For example, since a quarter of products that are believed to be out-of-stock are actually just misplaced within the facility, having these robots being able to accurately and quickly locate and manage items could significantly enhance inventory management. In addition, this technology could enable faster fulfillment of in-store pick-ups of online orders, an area many retailers struggled with this past holiday season.

Advancements in apparel manufacturing
Another obstacle retailers face is returned merchandise. Sourcing Journal recently revealed that, according to research performed by the National Retail Federation and the Retail Equation, returned items cost companies about $260.5 million in the U.S. alone in 2015. The source indicated that a handful of these returns could be attributed to the items not fitting correctly, since the standard system for sizing has not been modified in at least 70 years.

But this is yet another problem a robot may be able to resolve. Sourcing Journal reported that the Hong Kong Polytechnic's Institute of Textiles and Clothing spent four years designing the I.Dummy, a device intended to replace traditional retail mannequins that will have adjustable features that allow customers to personalize each element of the body to their measurements.

The source explained that this robot could enhance the efficiency of apparel manufacturers' supply chains by facilitating increased levels of productivity.

Although robots possess the capabilities to enhance retail supply chains, there are still limitations on what they are able to do, such as making personal connections with customers or leveraging creative solutions. And while it's possible these devices may one day dominate stores, it's safe to assume that, for the time being, they are most effective when used to supplement human employees, not replace them.

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