A robot may be cruising the aisles of a big box store near you. Roving examples of retail’s shift to digital, robots are part of massive IT spending to help retailers improve operational efficiency.
“Not long ago, Walmart was known as a brick-and-mortar powerhouse,” said Chris Baldwin, chairman of the National Retail Federation (NRF) Board of Directors, during his opening keynote at NRF 2019. “Today, they are very frequently mentioned as one of the most innovative companies in the world.”
And it’s no coincidence that Walmart spent about $11.7 billion on IT last year, trailing only Amazon and Alphabet. That hefty sum includes handheld technology, registers, and robots, Walmart stated at NRF; these robots assist with unloading trucks or providing actionable real-time data.
Acting Instantly on Live Data
“This is a way to provide instant guide rails to help the store manager become more effective,” SAP Business Architect Steve Mauchline said during a demonstration of a proof-of-concept dashboard that optimizes robot data (see the video above). As he swiveled the robot’s camera, he added, “You can see where the issues lie without even going to that part of the store.”
Bossa Nova Robotics makes a retail robot that’s already in use across about 50 Walmart stores in North America, gathering data that store managers really care about, such as shelf, product, and display discrepancies, as well as delivery schedules, active issues, and more. SAP’s dashboard can alert managers to problems,- and the system can decide when to bypass the manager to solve problems immediately.
“You maybe have 50,000 SKUs active at one time, for example; it’s probably 1,000 or 2,000 that do most of your business and probably 100 or 200 that do the vast amount of your business,” Mauchline said. “Put an automatic alert in this: If one of these is impacted, to automatically give Sam that job — and don’t even tell me about it.”
“Let’s fix the business instantly based on what is live,” Mauchline continued, “and make yourself an intelligent enterprise.”
Training People Quickly and Effectively With VR
“A lot of people forget how big a Walmart is… It’s a 200,000-square-foot building, and oftentimes you get two or three [delivery] trucks that back up,” Walmart Executive Vice President and CTO Jeremy King said onstage at NRF. “We built essentially a robot that slides into the back of the truck, and you unload the crates, and it helps sort the items on the pallets, so we can get items back to the shelf and restock quickly.”
Items flagged as out-of-stock by shelf-scanning robots can be fast-tracked from the delivery trucks to the store shelves. And virtual reality (VR) helps train Walmart associates to use these robots, pickup towers and more; two or three associates at a time train on VR goggles, and the rest watch the lesson on a screen.
“It’s just a really great way to learn, and you see people retain that information much better,” King said. “We have a million associates in the U.S., and retail has a relatively high turnover rate, so you need to be able to train people incredibly fast.”
But top-notch training helps with more than high turnover. Along with more robots, look for more human experts on the sales floor too.
Cultivating Your Front Line of Brand Ambassadors
“We still believe — in our business, in retail in the United States — that human connection matters; I hear it all the time,” Target Chairman and CEO Brian Cornell said onstage at NRF. “It’s part of the experience, what differentiates our brand.”
Much of Target’s recent success stems from a $1 billion investment in team building — alongside other expenditures toward technology upgrades, remodeling old stores, and opening new ones — according to Cornell. Dedicating sales floor experts to apparel, beauty, technology, and home has paid tremendous dividends.
“The best investment we made was in our people, and greater engagement, they’re an ambassador for our brand,” Cornell said. “So while the capital is important… it’s the investment we’ve made in the team, that’s why we’re sitting here today saying we’re having the best year in over a decade.”