Ecommerce companies already use robots for materials transport and picking orders, but brick-and-mortar stores don't want to be left out of the automation trend. Now Lowe's joins the growing list of retailers that are using artificial intelligence to help with both logistics and customer service. The home improvement store will start rolling out autonomous retail service robots to 11 California stores over the next seven months.
Lowe's partnered with Silicon Valley technology firm Fellow Robots to develop LoweBot, a 5-foot-tall NAVii machine that can navigate itself through store aisles while avoiding obstacles. The two companies have previously worked together to develop a similar robot that has been tested for the last two years in Orchard Supply Hardware, a chain owned by Lowe's.
At first, the robot seems like it's just a novelty designed to draw people into stores. (And that is probably at least partially true.) However, it's more complicated than a self-service kiosk. Much like human employees, it will greet customers, ask if they need help finding anything in the store, and then walk them to the correct location. The robot uses a 3D scanner for human body frame detection, and it engages with customers through speech recognition and a screen that displays detailed product information. It's not clear whether Lowe's will make its robots multi-lingual, but NAVii robots can be programmed to understand as many as 25 languages.
It can also scan inventory on the shelves and remember inventory details on a daily basis. Lowe's plans to use the data the robot collects to help the company find and detect inventory patterns that can influence business decisions.
Marco Mascorro, co-founder and CEO of Fellow Robots, tells ZDNet:
We develop technology that is scalable, which is the number one pain point for bringing new technology into the retail channel. Our robotic and software platform is robust enough to manage the complex and large inventory that these retailers have, and we work closely with our partners to understand their use case to tailor our offering. Our goal is to solve the biggest challenges our clients face, like checking inventory and customer service, while also having the ability to react and make quick iterations to our system to fulfill the unique needs of our partners.
According to a Deloitte report on 2016 retail trends, robots are increasingly common in warehouses and stores. In addition to using automated machines behind the scenes, retailers are introducing robotic shopping carts and customer-facing robots.
Robots have recently appeared in stores such as Target and Best Buy, and SoftBank's humanoid Pepper -- which has been popular in Japan -- made its North American debut this summer.