Are you being served? Robots can secure the future of our high...

Are you being served? Robots can secure the future of our high streets

Are you being served? Robots can secure the future of our high streets
Are you being served? Robots can secure the future of our high streets

Ryan Wu, deputy general manager at Qihan, discusses the increasing use of robots and AI, and how this revolution could be of significant benefit to the retail sector.

Digital has touched all aspects of our lives, from the way we work and communicate, to how we shop. The sweeping effects of e-commerce, with online sales estimated to reach £155 billion in 2016 in the UK alone, mean that the retail sector is at the center of digital transformation.

Bricks and mortar shops have experienced the tremors of online and mobile commerce the most. Physical shops traditionally relied on building face-to-face relationships with their clientele and were based on the premise that everyone entering the shop floor was a customer. The advent of digital commerce changed the rules of the game, meaning that success is no longer a result of stocking the right products. Consumers can shop anytime, anywhere and across any device. Moreover, they can browse and research products, prices and deals online from the comfort of their sofa.

The next step for retailers is to embrace the digital era and go ‘smart’. At a time when customer experience is the key competitive differentiator, Artificial Intelligence (AI) can open up new opportunities to offer the type of intelligent in-store experiences that can enable bricks and mortar shops to engage with customers in new ways, fostering loyalty and nurturing sales.

What do fierce competition and unlimited consumer options mean for retailers?

The retail industry can no longer be about what you sell, nor can it afford a race to the bottom on price. Whilst events like Black Friday do lead to spikes in footfall and consumer spending, these can only be used as sales-boosting occasions rather than the basis of a sustainable and profitable retail strategy. In other words, retailers should do more than base their profit margin on heavy discounting.

Shopping should be about more than just a transaction. Delivering a fun, enjoyable and memorable in-store experience can be the difference between a sale to a happy customer or that same customer taking their custom elsewhere. And to achieve this, retailers can find in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics an invaluable ally.

Related: Retailer Ocado using 1,000 4G automated machines in warehouse

Robots are a retailer’s new best friend

Imagine entering a shop and being greeted by a robot that answers your questions and direct you to the right aisle depending on what you are looking for. Now imagine, your shopping assistant introducing you to all available offers and handing you a discount or giving you the opportunity to scan your loyalty card in return for a voucher. Welcome to the new robotics era in retail, an era in which robots will revolutionise the in-store customer experience.

Following the implementation of robotics in supply chain management and logistics as well as in warehouse automation, the next frontier is the shop floor and customer interaction. Amongst the main reasons why consumers choose to shop online, the speed and comfort of the shopping experience consistently ranks highly. By bringing speed and convenience to the physical store, bricks and mortar retailers can benefit from one further competitive advantage: consumers love to browse, feel and try on products offline. In fact, according to a survey by PWC, 60 percent of respondents noted that in-store shopping allows them to have the item immediately, while 61 percent said they like trying on the item or seeing it in person before buying it.

Artificial intelligence and machine learning have reached the stage where they can engage in natural language conversations with consumers to address their needs and solve problems. Reading gestures and facial expressions means that robots can respond to complex voice commands. Equipped with the latest sensor technology, robots process, interact and integrate seamlessly with the world around them.

The key to successful implementation lies in simple, user-friendly customisable interfaces that enable retailers to tailor robots to their specific requirements and the needs of their clientele. An open API in particular, supports the development of apps that add new functionalities, allowing retailers to update the features on the robots as often as they need to ensure they stay on top of ever-changing shopping patterns, seasonal offers and business targets.

Related: Foxconn replaces staff with AI machines – is this the future?

AI means in-store UX will never be the same

A happy customer is often a loyal customer who will likely provide a favourable review about their in-store experience and will recommend the retailer. The retail industry knows well that there is no better advertisement than word-of-mouth. By leveraging AI and robotics technology, retailers can offer the in-store experiences that will keep customers coming back. In this way, they will create a key point of differentiation from both high street neighbours and online competitors. What’s more they will prove that the high street is not fading, it’s simply becoming more ‘intelligent’.

Related: Sanbot humanoid robot aids customs workers in China

Ryan Wu, deputy general manager at Qihan