Robots and drones have now officially joined the workforce with Amazon’s fulfilment centre in Essex reportedly having several thousand two-wheeled drones moving products around the warehouse.
US retail giant Walmart has also just added thousands of robots to its workforce in nearly 5,000 of its 11,348 stores – they will be tasked with unloading trucks, keeping track of inventories, scanning boxes and cleaning up, and focusing on the jobs that humans are less inclined to do.
Using automation behind the scenes may work well, but how effective are robots and drones in customer-facing roles?
The food delivery sector is currently embracing robotics with enthusiasm – an example of this is George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, which is the first college in the States to launch a food delivery service using 40 robots.
The robots, which are made by Starship Technologies, are said to have proved a hit with the students and the service has also created 20 jobs on campus.
Starship is also involved in a scheme in the UK to deliver packages across Milton Keynes. Domino’s is also trialling robot delivery for its pizzas in Houston, Texas, using self-driving vehicles designed by robotics company Nuro to be able to use roads alongside cars. Customers will be able to track their deliveries via the company app.
US home improvement retailer Lowe’s starting bringing robots front of house back in 2016 at its San Francisco stores. Customers are able to ask LoweBot by using a touch screen or speaking to it where they can find products, and other similarly basic questions. LoweBot can help provided it can identify the product, and also gathers information to help track shopping patterns and use the data to identify which products need restocking.
When it comes to actually serving customers in store there are question marks around how limited robots might turn out to be and whether they could actually put off customers who are accustomed to frictionless online shopping.
However, Japanese company Softbank has been developing its Pepper humanoid robot with a view to launching it in American markets. Pepper is said to be able to identify if the person who is addressing it is happy or sad, or whether there is something wrong by the tone of voice used. Several trials saw Pepper carry out a meet-and-greet role in stores and it was said to have actually increased footfall.
Despite Scott Anderson, Robotics Fulfilment director at Amazon, in an interview with Reuters, claiming that it was at least 10 years away from fully automating the processing of a single order picked by a worker in a warehouse, according to the Office for National Statistics, around 1.5 million people in England are at high risk of losing their jobs to automation, with salespeople among the most likely to be phased out, along with waiter and waitress jobs, and shelf fillers.
While some customers will always prefer to interact with a sales assistant, there is no doubt that the retail sector is on the cusp of a techno revolution.