Since the term “robot” was first coined by Czech author Karel Čapek in 1921, the idea of an autonomous, mechanical entity handling the most laborious roles of the working world has been a mainstay of popular culture.
While heavy industry has undoubtedly been transformed by automated machines since then, the idea of a visible, interactive robot which could exist and work alongside the general public has remained largely confined to science fiction.
This technology, in one form or another, has existed for some years. However industries such as retail, in which automation could offer the most relief from monotonous tasks, have been slow if not altogether reluctant to implement it.
That is, until the coronavirus crisis swept the globe.
“It has changed behaviour that may have taken two to three years, but that’s happened within eight weeks,” Bossa Nova Robotics managing director Red McKay told Charged.
The need for both customers and employees to maintain a safe distance while on the shop floor, alongside a combined drop in staff levels and spike in demand, has meant that automated grocery technology went from luxury to necessity almost overnight.
Companies like Bossa Nova, which already has hundreds of its autonomous shelf scanning robots in operation at the world’s biggest retailer Walmart, are poised to capitalise on this dramatic shift in attitude towards automation.
“Our autonomous robot is what visually we get recognised for, actually what we are and what that is, is a beta company for grocery retail” McKay explained.
Bossa Nova’s shelf scanning robot will move along a stores shelves, scanning for gaps and providing real-time information to managers about stock levels, enabling them to make decisions on the fly and instruct staff to restock items before a customer even knows they’re gone.
Revenues have just spiked between anywhere between 20 and 50 per cent depending on the grocer, and they will need to invest that because this current situation is going to have a long tail
According to McKay ‘out-of-stock’ issues are one of the biggest issues for grocery retailers globally, costing the sector up to $1.2 trillion globally, a number he expects to have tripled “because of what’s happened in terms of the demand of the online consumer and the impact of the supply chain”.
“Does anybody believe that lean work forces within grocery at the moment scan all of the products in each aisle? McKay continued.
“They can’t. They simply can’t afford it, they need their team and their colleagues to interact with their customers to interact with the product, to clean, tidy, manage and supervise, to serve customers. Just running the operational infrastructure of a store is incredibly complex.”
The pandemic has not only made this technology more important due to social distancing, but because the sudden shift online has given the consumer never-before-seen levels of power.
Any hint of poor service on the part of the retailer, and the customer is able to change who they shop from in a “move of their finger”.
“I think, because now the consumer has moved into a very powerful position, grocery retailers in particular have had to really adjust their service,” McKay explained.
“Fundamentally, it is the consumer that is making the demands on our acceleration. The consumer is accelerating so quickly in terms of what he expects. Within years, we’ve gone from a two-week delivery expectation to a two hour to one hour and delivery to door, so those expectations need to be met and surpassed.
“That forces the technology. And I think as much as much as we are the market leader at the moment, it’s going to be fantastic to see the acceleration in adoption and therefore investment in not only our technology, but also wider services and network automation and data.”
While attitudes towards the implementation of more visible, interactive, consumer focused automated machines have been accelerated by the pandemic, many of the barriers to adoption still remain.
Primarily many stores currently lack the infrastructure needed for such robots to communicate with store management and staff effectively.
Bossa Nova’s robots are able to cover an entire superstore with just one unit, but they require solid and reliable Wi-Fi infrastructure in order to operate.
According to McKay “being able to get data at the speed and volume we provide, and then turn that into actionable data” remains a key barrier.
“The process has been pretty long (to get people on board), I should imagine that will shorten, but it will still be a pretty long process because it is such a significant part of new infrastructure,” he continued.
“I think in terms of very significant infrastructure costs it’s always a barrier in terms of quick decisions.”
Since lockdown began in the UK, grocery sales grew at their fastest rate in 26 years, seeing grocery retailers rake in hundreds of millions in extra revenue.
This extra cash will need to flow somewhere, and McKay believes it could help mean “those barriers will come down”.
“Revenues have just spiked between anywhere between 20 and 50 per cent depending on the grocer, and they will need to invest that because this current situation is going to have a long tail,” he explained.
“I think people won’t forget the new capabilities are online, the speed, the additional slots for delivery, all of that is going to need fundamental differences in accelerated technology services to be able to maintain that delivery standard for the consumer.”
One thing that the pandemic has not been able to influence though is customers’ reaction to seeing these robots roam around stores, mingle with staff and shoppers and jump out of realms of science fiction to the shop floor.
We don’t give it a name, but it does get called names. One entire team called it Casanova and they became very, very protective over it.
As we’ve seen in the UK with initiatives like Sainsbury’s first entirely cashless store, which was closed after just three months because “not all our customers are ready for totally till-free” shopping, there is often major resistance to the sudden implementation of new technology.
This is a factor in which Bossa Nova was all too aware, and it reportedly invested a lot of money to ensure its robot’s design was as “anonymous and utilitarian as possible” hoping to mitigate the reactions of more technophobic customers.
Despite these measures, it seems that customers are largely unable to ignore the robots roaming around stores, with many assigning a personality to a robot designed to be as featureless as possible.
“There’s no flashing huge lights, it’s not making huge noises, it’s not got a face on it and it’s not waving its arms around, McKay said.
“It’s not drawing attention to itself and its speed is slower than a browsing speed. It still remains a big surprise to me is that it ends up being part of the customer’s experience.
“They’re just expected to be there. When it hasn’t run for that particular day we get asked: where is it? Why is it not here? Is it okay? So they add personality and emotion to it, which we don’t.
“We don’t give it a name, but it does get called names. One entire team called it Casanova and they became very, very protective over it.”
Although the unique and unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic have helped progress attitudes within the retail sector, it seems the same fascination which has kept robots so embedded in popular culture for 100 years could be the real driving factor behind their adoption.