Forget the Saturday boy, here comes the robot shelf-stacker

Nicole Kobie
2 Jul 2013

You know those automated checkout machines in Tesco and Sainsbury's -- the ones that nag you in a robotic voice to "please place item in the bagging area"? If you hate those machines, you're going to hate shopping in the future even more than you do now, because stores are getting automated.

That doesn't mean retail staff across the nation need worry for their jobs -- we'll always need someone to scowl at us when we come in the door -- but technology is increasingly being used to help us spend more, from intelligent vending machines and robotic shelf stackers, to massive touchscreen promotional tools and smell-based marketing.

Retailers hope such technologies will help draw shopping back from the web to the high street, as does Intel -- all of these systems run of a Core chip of some sort and make use of the company's remote management and analytics software. It showed off the latest innovations in retail tech and what's to come next at The Future of Retail show at Central Saint Martin's College in London.

Robot shelf-stackers

Forget sullen teenagers grumpily restocking shelves, refusing to answer questions about which aisle the Cornflakes are in -- in the future, we'll have robots.

Bossa Nova Robotics showed off a robot that rolls around checking stock, making sure there's enough on the shelf and that everything's in the right place. In the future, they could do the overnight stocking, while during the day rolling around as intelligent shop assistants. The first models are expected to be in American stores in 2014 -- and Tesco is already testing two of them.

Hopefully the firm has the sense to keep the robots quiet, rather than nagging us about our shopping the way the automated check-out tills do, but if the robots do attract the frustration of shoppers (or human shop assistants), they'll not only be ruggedised for their own protection, but "if you've abused it, we probably have a picture of you".

Marketing by smell

Spice company Schwartz wanted to increase its brand awareness -- apparently people just buy spices without worrying about branding -- and boost sales, so it turned to gamification.

It installed boxes in stores that feature a touchscreen, smell-based "Guess That Spice" game. It releases a scent, and the user has to guess from the choices which it is (I mistook cumin for cinnamon, which shows what I know about cooking). Get enough correct answers, and it prints out a voucher for a discount on Schwartz spices -- and 70% of those vouchers are actually redeemed.

Bringing online choice in-store

Much shopping has moved online, and with good reason: no queuing to pay or dodging other shoppers, and it's often cheaper. While stores can't do much about those problems, they can address another: wider variety.

To address this, Adidas has created a touchscreen wall of trainers, already in use in some stores. The four stacked Samsung monitors display a rotating view of shoe options, highlighting the colours, features and sizes available for the different 2,300 trainers on offer. They might not all be available in store, but it means you can try on a similar pair and then see what other options are available.

What's in the box?

Lego had a problem selling its model kits to children: the little ones wanted to see what the finished model would look like, and Lego didn't want to open every single box to show them -- not a surprise, given each store has hundreds of different options. To address this, it uses augmented reality: the child brings the box up to the "Digital Box", and an animated version of the model pops up on the display for them to interact with on screen.

3D printers

While 3D printers designed for home use are starting to slide in price, many think the real tipping point for this machines will be in stores, with an Intel spokesperson saying the technology "allows retailers to reimagine themselves", and shift from simply selling products to manufacturing them -- a move Tesco is already reportedly considering.

3D printing could follow the same pattern as photo printers, Intel suggested, saying high-quality home photo printers failed to take off because it became easier and cheaper to simply upload your photographs to a printing service, and then pick them up in store or have them delivered. With 3D printers, customers could upload the object they want created, and then pick it up when it's completed -- for much less money and at a higher quality than a home 3D printer.

In the future, it may not only be plastic bits and pieces, but we could see robotic seamstresses, too -- pick out the shirt you want, get it sized properly, choose a fabric, and then come back in ten minutes when the robot is finished stitching.

Automated baristas

While it may seem as though there's a Cafe Nero, Costa or Starbucks every ten feet here in London, there are apparently places where it doesn't make sense to open an entire cafe -- such as inside office buildings or hospitals.

To fill that gap, Costa has come up with what it calls a "multi-sensory self-serve expresso bar" -- what the rest of us would call a vending machine. We've written about this before, as it's surely the first coffee machine to run a Core i7 chip and feature an SSD.

Aside from producing a surprisingly decent latte -- the beans are apparently refreshed at least once every 24 hours -- it also uses video analytics to decide your gender and age bracket in order to figure out who orders what drinks, and make sure the machines stock the right amount of each product.

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