December 21, 2020

8 Ways Robots Will Transform Retail Operations in 2021

Gavin Donley
Gavin Donley

Heading into 2020, brick-and-mortar retailers found themselves struggling with a number of serious challenges, including intense e-commerce pressure, rising costs, and loss of productivity, to name a few. Fast forward a year, and those challenges have become more acute (and numerous) thanks to the emergence of the COVID-19 global pandemic. The health crisis quickly brought the value of automation and robotics sharply into focus and forced retail operations executives who had previously discounted or pushed off investing in the emerging technology to reconsider. With the pandemic surging and shopping patterns quickly evolving, interest in retail robotics is growing. Here are some predictions for how autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) will continue to shape the retail landscape in 2021 and beyond.

1. Robots will evolve from novel to necessary.

As recently as two years ago, robotic scrubbers, vacuums, and other self-driving machines that operate in high-traffic public locations were considered a bit of a novelty — interesting to see, but not essential. This view changed with the pandemic, which proved that robotics can not only help retailers of all sizes but become indispensable to regular store operations. As cleaning workloads increased exponentially, regional chains including Schnucks and Giant Eagle, along with big-box retailers like Walmart, quickly increased their usage of autonomous scrubbers to support workers and enhance efficiency. According to Brain Corp data, the median usage of robotic scrubbers at US retail locations spiked by 14.5% during the first three quarters of the year compared to the same period in 2019, generating an estimated 2.4 million hours of productivity. The use of the scrubbers freed up workers to focus on higher-value tasks, including sanitizing high-contact surfaces, restocking inventory, supporting customers, or even taking much-needed breaks. The growth of robotics within retail outlets of different sizes will continue to accelerate in 2021 as more retailers realize their strategic value.

2. Operational performance will be verified and improved using robotic data.

One of the key (and often hidden) benefits of autonomous robots is the ability to get near-real-time usage data through email reporting and cloud-based user portals. For example, cleaning robots provide detailed metrics on KPIs such as store areas covered, number of routes run, and percentage of autonomous usage, as well as visual heat maps of areas cleaned and much more. This data is difficult to glean via traditional, manual methods, and it allows operations and facilities managers to verify and optimize daily cleaning performance, as well as better manage corporate compliance goals. In 2021, we can expect to see managers and daily operators using robotic data to improve their operations and show clear “proof of work” metrics.

3. Dual-function robots that also capture data will lead to new efficiencies.

In addition to recording usage data, next-generation in-store robots will evolve to also capture environmental data that can be turned into actionable insights for improving operational performance. Early adopters such as Sam’s Club are already conducting retail shelf analytics pilots that integrate an innovative data-scanning accessory into existing robotic floor scrubbers. Instead of using two separate robots to clean and analyze inventory, one robot with both capabilities can improve in-store shopping experiences with less disruption and at a lower cost. The introduction of dual-purpose data-collecting robots for various applications supports a broader trend toward the digital transformation of physical stores.

4. Shoppers will soon associate in-store robots with good retail experiences.

Self-driving robots may have received quizzical looks from shoppers in the past, but today they receive fewer second glances. National retail chains have ramped up the use of robotic scrubbers during the pandemic and are increasingly deploying them during the daytime. In fact, daytime usage of robotic scrubbers at US retailers jumped by 133% during the first three quarters of the year compared to last year, according to Brain Corp’s internal data. Increased usage and public visibility are translating into increased consumer comfort around robots, which in turn empowers retailers to expand investment in robotic applications.

5. Retail stores will become multi-robot environments.

Cleaning robots are by far the most popular type of robotic application within retail, but autonomous solutions for in-store delivery and retail shelf analytics are gaining steam. According to ABI Research, total annual shipments of AMRs will reach more than 2.5 million by 2030 across multiple industry verticals, including retail. This is great for productivity but raises an issue: how to manage siloed robotic applications from different manufacturers. Retailers will likely begin to evaluate a platform-based approach (such as the one offered by Brain Corp) that can manage multiple retail robotics applications from various equipment manufacturers. A unified, cloud-connected approach will make it easier for retailers to manage robotic fleets by providing centralized data hosting and reporting, built-in safety protocols, connected user experiences, and automatic software upgrades.

6. Robots will become more intuitive and easier to use.

Until recently, autonomous robots were mostly confined to tightly controlled warehouse and manufacturing settings where they could be closely monitored by engineers. But autonomous solutions must be accessible for non-technical users in order to be viable in commercial public settings such as retail and grocery stores. Robots used in retail environments must include intuitive user interfaces, graphical reporting, and easy deployment instructions, or employees will consider them too difficult to use and revert back to traditional methods. Simplified user experiences with retail and other verticals will become a baseline requirement for all public-facing commercial robots.

7. Perception of robotic ROI will expand beyond cost savings.

Autonomous robots deliver great cost savings, but their benefits go far beyond just dollars and cents. By taking care of dull, repetitive tasks, robots deliver additional hours of productivity that enable workers to focus on other important tasks, such as spending more time with customers. Robots also help to enhance brand value as they are a strong visual reminder of a company’s commitment to operational sophistication and general innovation. As more retailers become aware of the long-term advantages of robotic adoption, we can expect to see the retail industry adopt a new approach to evaluating innovative technologies using a more holistic definition of ROI.

8. Robots will continue to redefine cleanliness as a pillar of brand value.

Until the pandemic, cleaning was considered something to be done on the “third shift” — late at night after the store had closed. That changed with the onset of the pandemic, as fearful shoppers have reduced their regular trips and begun shopping online. In one study conducted by C+R Research in March, 60% of shoppers said they feared going shopping because of the pandemic. To assuage shoppers’ concerns, retailers have had to dramatically upgrade their cleaning programs, including by adding robotic cleaners and engaging in around-the-clock cleaning. This probably won’t change anytime soon, even with a potential vaccine on the horizon. Visible cleanliness has become a permanent brand value for many grocers and retailers.

Enhanced robotic support for e-commerce fulfillment centers and an expansion of robotic ecosystems to include things like low-level customer support are other likely trends for the coming year. 2020 has been a watershed year for robotics due to a once-in-a-generation health crisis. Within a span of a few months, robots became essential to the success of retail outlets and familiar sights in many major shopping locations. We expect that trend to accelerate into the new year and well beyond.

This blog post was originally run as a contributed article in Robotics Business Review.

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