In the Westfield shopping centers in San Jose and San Francisco, customers were treated to an extraordinary sight as they did their Christmas shopping. Upon entering the store, a small robot named Pepper would greet each customer and offer to direct them to a particular store. Upon leaving the store, Pepper would offer customers a survey about their most recent shopping experience. For many shoppers, this was the first time they interacted with a service robot. However, service robots have been in operation for over two years in the United States. Companies like Best Buy, Target and Amazon have been using service robots in a number of test locations since 2014. In June of this year, Westfield Co-CEO, Peter Lowy stated “We can use digital technology in malls to connect with the customer.”
In 2015, Best Buy tested out a service robot named Chloe in its flagship store in New York City. Instead of being in the store proper, the store housed Chloe in a 350-square-foot enclosure surrounded by more than 15,000 items. Customers would select the item they wanted from one of nine touchscreens, pay for the item and Chloe would then retrieve it. The best part about Chloe is that the service robot still functioned after the store closed for the night. Customers who were in the mood for a new movie or video game in the middle of the night could use a touchscreen located outside of the store to purchase something from Chloe. The service robot allowed the store to remain open 24/7 without the need for human employees.
In early 2016, Target began testing out a service robot named Tally in its downtown San Francisco location. However, rather than assist customers, Tally supports the employees. The robot’s primary function was to roll throughout the store and do a count of the on-hand inventory. Tally could determine if an item was low in stock or if a customer placed the item in an inappropriate location. While a human employee takes upward of 25 hours to inventory an entire store, Tally was able to do it in under one hour.
Lastly, Amazon is experimenting with service robots in many of their shipping locations. In late 2014, the retail giant employed more than 15,000 robots in 10 different warehouses. These service robots could not only find the product, but they could also package and ship it as well. The built-in wheels on these robots allowed them to navigate to any part of the warehouse and reach any location a human could. Amazon estimated that these service robots sped up delivery times by as much as 20 percent. With service improvements like these, expect to see more companies experiment and utilize service robots in 2017 and beyond.