Robots are now becoming a reality after spending decades as a purely sci-fi concept. Many of the biggest companies, from Ford to Amazon, use robots to handle manual labor in warehouses.
But at the National Retail Federation's 2020 Big Show in New York, dozens of companies displayed their latest robots that are designed to work in concert with retail employees and weave around customers.
The robots at NRF 2020, many of which are either being deployed now or will be this year, are focused mostly on restocking shelves, monitoring price tag accuracy and keeping the store clean.
"Retailers are using robots to do all types of things. Everything from floor cleaning to material handling and now shelf analytics," said Josh Baylin, who works on strategy with the robotics automation company Brain Corp.
"They're looking to optimize store performance and drive revenue. We help our partners produce, deploy, scale and support their robotic deployments in all different types of environments, like retail, airports and malls."
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Price tags and restocking shelves
Right now, most robotics companies are focused on building tools that can handle relatively simple tasks in an effort to ease retailers and the public into more widespread use.
The most common tasks for robots center on checking tags so they have the correct prices and sales on them as well as notifying store workers if a shelf needs to be stocked.
"These robots are our workhorse of the future. We put eyes on the shelf and serve as the ground troops of the store, notifying workers of the real-time state of the store," said Sarjoun Skaff, founder and CTO of Bossa Nova Robotics.
The company has deployed robots in 350 Walmarts in the US and internationally.
"They come with a battery of cameras and sensors that are pointed at a shelf and can capture anything on the shelf in minute detail. Our cloud examines what is on shelf, looks for misplaced items or items that have been mispriced. It helps a store address the most egregious problems in order of importance and it tells people where to go and restock or what labels to replace and more."
Tim Rowland, CEO of Badger Technologies, said during a panel that his company is working on robots that will soon be able to tap into the entire supply chain, instantaneously notifying the store, and potentially suppliers, when a retailer runs out of a specific product.
Clean floors and spill management
Rowland spoke in depth about his work providing robots for Woolworths Australia stores, telling an eager audience that the partnership grew out of a need to solve the "grapes on the floor" problem that many retailers face.
Customers, especially ones in supermarkets like Woolworths, routinely slip and fall on dropped food items like grapes, and this problem can sometimes lead to onerous lawsuits for retailers.
Rowland's Badger robots now work with teams at a handful of Woolworths in Australia to monitor aisles for any fallen food and notify workers of where a cleanup is needed.
Rob McCartney, format development director at Woolworths, said a robot is deployed almost every hour and can cover a 35,000-square-foot store in about 27 minutes.
This specific use case expanded rapidly in ways McCartney and Rowland didn't expect. Employees at each store have now given their robots names and adopted them as part of the community. They've become such a hit that kids routinely come to the store just to take Instagram photos with the robot.
The success of the robots at Woolworths Australia locations has prompted Badger to look into how they can expand the capabilities beyond spills and dropped items.
"Can the robot now identify out of stocked items? Can it identify where my displays are not the way I set them up and price inaccuracies? Can I give that data in a way that Rob can take action and start breaking through to fix problems?" Rowland said.
Rowland said there are an endless number of tasks robots could potentially handle and it was only a matter of time before they were deployed in even more retail situations.
"The warehouse environment, to me, is a natural next step. Given enough time, you can train a machine to look at anything. Even in the short term, with some human inspection, I can check bay doors or fire extinguishers or smoke or glass in certain areas. It's a perfect application," Rowland said.
Baylin added that Brain works with many robotics companies that produce tools able to handle a variety of tasks at retailers like Walmart and Kroger.
Brain saw a 500% increase in robot deployments last year and that number is sure to rise as more retailers see the benefits of robots, Baylin added.
His company is working to make robots more approachable and less intimidating so they can be deployed in more situations. While some may question what effect the rapid increase in robots will have on human employment, he was quick to say that the jobs these machines handle are things people shouldn't have to do any longer.
"We're looking at providing a more repeatable, stable process. We want people to have high-value roles. Checking the same things can be monotonous," Baylin said. "We think robots can take those roles and humans can serve in higher-value roles within the store. Think of the robot less as a replacement and more as an augmentation of work."
Note: This article was originally published on TechRepublic and is being republished on ZDNet as part of our "Robotics in the enterprise" special feature.