Can retail robots make brick and mortar shops competitive again?

Analytics, automation, and connectivity. The tools of online shopping make their way to the corner store.

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With the new expectation of insanely fast delivery (I want my Mister Moonshine home distillery kit today!), the global logistics industry has been leaning heavily on technology to speed up operations. Online retailers like Amazon and British grocer Ocado have been combining warehouse automation with predictive analytics to deliver products almost as soon as customers press the buy button, and in some cases before.

Brick and mortar retailers have been slower to adopt automation and analytics solutions, the twin technological pillars helping internet retailers gobble up market share.

But the bout is young and traditional stores are primed to come out swinging in the second round. The launch this week of a retail robot from newcomer Simbe Robotics seeks to address one of the most strategically important (though admittedly boring) aspects of selling physical products on shelves in the 21st century: shelf auditing and product analytics.

"When it comes to the retail industry, shopper experience is everything," says Brad Bogolea, CEO and Co-founder of Simbe Robotics. "If a product is unavailable at the time the shopper wants to buy it, the retailer has missed an opportunity and disappointed their customer."

That's not just some "user experience" mumbo jumbo to move robots. Global retailers lose nearly $450 billion annually as a result of out-of-stock items and empty shelves.

IT solutions, bolstered by scanner guns and armies of bright-vested minimum wage employees, have been the solution to date, and that goes some of the way toward explaining why brick and mortar stores have taken a beating in the first full flowering of internet retail. The work of auditing shelves, crucial though it is, tends to be repetitive, boring, and never-ending, ingredients that make employees performing those tasks error prone.

Simbe's solution is a mobile robot that can autonomously maneuver through large brick and mortar retail environments to "capture, report, and analyze the state and availability of merchandise and help ensure compliance with the store's planogram -- the ideal placement of products on shelves in order to maximize sales," according to a company statement.

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Tally audits shelves for out-of-stock, low stock, and misplaced items, and can spot pricing errors and items that aren't facing the right direction, a big deal in retail. Advanced route planning and sense-and-avoid technology enables the robot to operate safely during business hours alongside shoppers and employees.

Not surprisingly, the 38-inch tall, 30-pound robot runs on the open-source Robotic Operating System (ROS), which is fast-becoming the standard for commercial robots of all stripes, particularly those that operate in semi-structured environments like warehouses and, now, retail stores. It's only a matter of time before a robot clerk will wheel up beside you to ask if you need any help.

(Inevitable progress or another nail in the coffin for low wage labor? Let's hear it in the comments.)

Tally is currently in trial with several North American retailers. If you find one looking bored at a store near you, do it a favor and turn some products the wrong way. It loves a challenge.

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