Are Retail Robots Out to Get Us?

I was invited to a robot’s birthday party the other week. Well, me and a million other customers, all invited to celebrate one human year of Marty’s robot life patrolling Giant and Stop & Shop grocery stores across America. If you are not familiar with Marty, imagine a 6’3” tall grey robot who glides down the aisles of grocery stores—with huge hilarious googly eyes. Using sensors on his head and body, Marty detects spills and alerts staff to a “cleanup on aisle seven.” Unfortunately, his googly eyes can’t actually detect anything, and are just stuck on in an attempt to make him feel more human and friendly. It’s amazing what happens when you stick a pair of googly eyes on something. 

Robots have birthday parties too you know

Marty is one of the more successful deployments of robots into retail stores. As well as detecting spills, he can also scan shelves to spot incorrect pricing and missing labels, replacing some of the more menial grocery store roles and allowing staff to focus on their higher-value duties like customer service. On January 25, select Stop & Shop and Giant Food stores stuck an “I’m the birthday bot” ribbon on their Marty, tied balloons to his narrow body, and threw a first birthday party for him. The stores even had Marty-shaped cakes to eat, despite the fact that Marty’s mouth is just painted on. 

But it’s not all balloons and birthday cake. In the last year, Marty has been met with a mixed response, with some feeling that he is stalking shoppers and others complaining that he loudly draws attention to even the smallest of dangerous hazards—including a rogue grape on the floor.

One thing is for sure: Marty is a real novelty who has gotten a lot of people talking, and he does make shopping more delightful—even comical. Our birthday bot Marty has even recently stepped up as a potential eye-witness to a high-profile murder case. The accused’s alibi is that she took a selfie with Marty in Simsbury’s Stop & Shop on the day in question. Police are now analysing Marty’s video recording footage (though the company claims that Marty only takes photos of the floor to identify spills) to corroborate the alibi. Marty is said to be working with Connecticut State Police and was not available for comment.

Prior to Marty’s recent crime fighting, there have been other robots, some even dedicated solely to the act of crime prevention. One of the most unfortunate was the Knightscope K5 mall cop robot that couldn’t solve many crimes because, much like a Dalek, it was unable to navigate a flight of stairs and was ultimately found face down in a fountain in a Washington DC mall. This was possibly a revenge crime, as a year earlier the Knightscope K5 was involved in a series of incidents where it was responsible for knocking down and running over small children. I would think that robots looking out for our best interests should be less of a danger to, well, us humans who are shopping. 

But Marty and K5 were not the first retail robots. No, in 2016 Lowe’s trialled a less friendly (sans googly eyes) “LoweBot” to perform a similar patrolling function—minus the crime fighting and aisle cleanup. Described as an iPad on wheels, visitors to Lowe’s San Francisco stores could ask a LoweBot, by speaking or using a touch screen, common customer service questions or where to find an item in-store. If they had brought one with them, they could also hold up an example of what they were looking for (e.g. a broken tap), and the robot’s built-in camera would recognise the product and, if in stock, take the customer to the appropriate shelf. As well as its customer service role, LoweBot also performed real-time inventory tracking as it travelled down the aisles, scanning and gathering information to help identify shopping patterns and aid in resupplying shelves. LoweBot hasn’t had any birthday parties that we know of—at least, we haven’t been invited to any—hasn’t solved any crimes, and has just generally kept to itself. This is possibly a good thing as there seems to be a resistance building to our automated friends.

Meanwhile, robots are finding their use in other places in retail—mostly in the storeroom and warehouses where technology has already been more successfully deployed. Amazon has been pioneering the use of robots to fully automate fulfilment in their massive warehouses: thousands of fast moving robots move their products around to be packed at dizzying speeds. These repetitive tasks are exactly what robots are good at, and who would argue? They don’t need sleep, don’t take breaks, and keep working even when the lights are off thanks to robot eyes that are able to operate in the dark—presumably not stuck-on googly ones.

Amazon has been keeping its robots for the most part hidden, instead going to another extreme with their new Amazon Go grocery stores where they have neither humans nor robots, offering a seamless shopping experience not unlike shoplifting. Their stores are just shelves that you take items from, which are later automagically billed to your Amazon account. Amazon recently opened its latest Go store and trademark shoplifter experience in NYC. We will be covering our Amazon Go experience in another story. 

However, Amazon is investing in robots to take care of its online delivery. For years Amazon has fostered rumors of drones undertaking the last mile of delivery to get you your online goodies even faster, with swarms of drones supposedly ready to deliver sneakers in less than thirty minutes. Despite the buzz about drones (and wow do they buzz), they haven’t been spotted in the wild much, with many issues still to be resolved such as the risk of attacks by birds, dogs, or pesky kids with slingshots and long sticks. You can see how a potential addition of a small weapon—perhaps a taser or a gun—to the drones under the premise of self-defence might seem justifiable, but would just lead to a future robot apocalypse where drones go rogue and attack children everywhere. 

This is not real BTW. Well the blimp is, but the drones have been added as CGI

Another pioneering big-box retailer who is putting drones to use behind closed doors (away from small children) is Walmart. In 2017, Walmart was granted a patent for a system in which drones shuttle products between different departments inside its stores. The idea was to reduce the time customers spent searching for a particular product on the shelf, or waiting for a human customer service representative to find the product in the storeroom. 

Walmart is also in on the robot game, with not one but four robots (possibly more) deployed. Instead of opting for an all-in-one multifunction robot like Marty—who can do two tasks questionably well—Walmart has divided the tasks of floor cleaning, shelf scanning, product delivery and automatic vending into four single task robots: the Auto-C, the ride-on floor cleaner you no longer need to ride; the Auto-S, a shelf scanner; the Fast Unloader, a storeroom inventory dispatcher; and the Pickup Tower, an online order vending machine. Interestingly, none of these have googly eyes. 

Illustrations of Auto-S, Pickup Tower, Auto-C and Fast Unloader GIF

Walmart’s line-up feels very fresh and new, but robots have been in retail for decades—think of the vending machine, the earliest example of a robot store assistant. Consumer electronics retailer Best Buy has taken the vending machine concept one step further, making one so big that you could stand in it. Best Buy collaborated with PaR Systems to introduce Chloe, a giant automated robot arm that retrieves products from rows of secure shelves behind it. All you need to do is tell Chloe what products you want using a touch screen, and she’ll navigate the shelves to deliver a range of small electronic goods such as earbuds or video games to you. Like Chloe’s smaller siblings, the whole system lets customers make purchases without the need for an employee and, by shelving merchandise vertically, opens up additional floorspace in the store. As these kinds of items are often kept in locked cabinets or displayed without the items inside for security purposes, using Chloe means that shoppers do not need to wait for a shop assistant to help them access and purchase their items.

Robots Vs Humans?

What are the things we expect to see more robots doing in retail stores? Are we happy to have a world where we don’t ever need to talk to another human, or do we crave something more?

There is no doubt that automation in large format store retail is inevitable and actually leads to a better shopping experience by freeing up the humans to look after the customers. But we still need to find the harmonious balance between shoppers and robots.

Kids have been getting stuck in vending machines for decades trying to get free candy—let’s hope there isn’t a Chloe incident resulting in children being wedged 30 feet up between earbuds and phone chargers anytime soon.

About Vaughan Fergusson

Vaughan is the Founder of Vend. An entrepreneur and technologist, Vaughan's goal is to make retailers' lives easier. When he's not leading the team, Vaughan is working on his charitable foundation and raising his kids.