Retailers turn to robots faster than expected

  • April 13, 2021
  • Steve Rogerson

The retail industry is turning to robots faster than expected due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with widespread adoption expected in just a few years, according to a survey by California-based AI robotics company Brain Corp.

The survey for RetailWire, conducted last month, underscores the growing significance of robotic automation technology in the post-pandemic marketplace. These technologies are seen as key for assisting workers with a variety of tasks, from floor cleaning to shelf scanning, both in stores and in warehouses.

Key findings included:

  • 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.
  • Nearly half of the respondents say they will be involved with an in-store robotics project within the next 18 months.
  • 73% of large retailers say the importance of using robotics in warehouses or distribution centres has increased due to factors that emerged during the pandemic.
  • Other pandemic factors that influenced a change in thinking included the need to provide a safer, cleaner store for shoppers; the need for enhanced social distancing; and the need to improve on-shelf inventory availability.

Cleanliness became a major priority for retailers and grocers during the pandemic as stores rushed to meet heightened consumer expectations. The survey shows that these increased cleanliness standards are the new normal: the vast majority (72%) of respondents say they do not anticipate much change in consumer expectations towards in-store cleanliness even after vaccines are broadly distributed.

The survey also shows that retailers are looking to use robots for in-store functions such as automating tasks and collecting environmental data for improving customer experiences. This includes robots for scanning shelves for stockouts (59%), order picking (47%), delivering goods from the back warehouse to store shelves (35%), pricing accuracy checks (35%), and more.

“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.”

The survey findings are consistent with the growth that Brain Corp saw in 2020 for robotic deployments with its OEM partners. The company achieved an increase of over 300% in robotic deployments last year, many in retail stores, while generating an estimated 3.3 million hours in productivity for end users.

While robotic technology in retail has slowly been gaining steam over the years, 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.”

The survey queried 136 respondents in the retail industry, including retailers and wholesalers, retail consultants, tech providers, and brand marketers and manufacturers.

Brain Corp is an AI software firm that powers a fleet of autonomous mobile robots operating in commercial indoor public spaces. The BrainOs platform and its cloud-connected autonomy service are used by manufacturers to build, deploy and support commercial robots at scale across industries and applications. Through intuitive software and controls, BrainOs also lets end users easily leverage the power of robotics to offload repetitive, labour-intensive tasks related to floor care, in-store inventory delivery and shelf-scanning. Working with its partners, Brain Corp has deployed more than 14,500 robots within retail, grocery, malls, airports, hospitals, warehouses and other industries.