Pandemic is pushing robots into retail at unprecedented pace

A new survey illustrates broad acceptance for robots in retail, including these crucial tasks.

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One of the striking trends during the pandemic has been the acceptance of automation technologies by a previously tepid public. Retail in particular has accelerated development of automation, including robotics, which will result in a quick rollout over the next few years.

A new survey by RetailWire and Brain Corp, an artificial intelligence (AI) company creating core technology in robotics, including cleaning robots, supports the conclusion that COVID-19 has hastened automation development and adoption. Robots used for tasks such as floor cleaning and shelf scanning, both in stores and in warehouses, are selling briskly, and sentiment among retailers broadly supports adoption. The survey results are included in an executive summary available online, "Robots in Retail: Examining the Autonomous Opportunity."

Among the top line results, 64% of retailers believe it is important to have a clear, executable, and budgeted robotics automation strategy in place in 2021, including 77% of large retailers. That's striking considering robots in retail wasn't really a thing as recently as the 2010s. Now, nearly half of the respondents to the survey say they will be involved with an in-store robotics project within the next 18 months. 

"The global pandemic brought the value of robotic automation sharply into focus for many retailers, and we now see them accelerating their deployment timelines to reap the advantages now and into the future," said Josh Baylin, Senior Director of Strategy at Brain Corp. "Autonomous robots are versatile productivity partners that help keep stores clean, generate additional hours for employees, and help improve in-store customer experiences."

One of the big drivers of adoption during the pandemic has been the hyper focus on cleanliness. Stores have ramped up cleaning protocols, but the end of the pandemic will leave lasting expectations. According to the survey, the vast majority (72%) of respondents say they do not anticipate much change in consumer expectations toward in-store cleanliness even after vaccines are broadly distributed. About the same number of large retailers, 73%, say the importance of using robotics in warehouses or distribution centers has increased due to factors that emerged during the pandemic.

The need to maintain safe and clean conditions has coincided perfectly with a growing awareness of the benefits of retail automation for data-driven insights. That's precisely the sales pitch of companies like Simbe and Bossa Nova, which make robots that scan merchandise autonomously to find out of stocks and misplaced SKUs but also to derive insights on buying habits and micro trends, the kind of data that's driven Amazon to the forefront of the retail pack.

Robotic technology in retail has been gaining momentum, but RetailWire said it found the new accelerated adoption trends expressed in the survey "stunning" and "surprisingly large."

"These are not the kinds of numbers indicative of an emerging technology in an early phase of deployment in retail, but of a technology just a few short years from widespread adoption," according to the report. "In fact, as robotic technology gains a foothold in-store operations, broader benefits are likely to fuel future growth, such as the ability to capture granular, real-time data about products on shelves and customer buying patterns, monitor pricing and planogram compliance and keep tabs on out-of-stocks. Armed with this kind of data, retailers will be able to discover actionable insights, make smarter decisions and increase store productivity."