The battle wages on between brick-and-mortar stores and online retailers. Rates of shoppers opting to purchase products and services online continues to rapidly grow, due to the ease, speed and customized experience on offer. This has been a problem for retailers with physical stores for years, something that has only been exacerbated by the recent pandemic. Unique experiences through innovation can be a key driver to bring customers back into stores and differentiate services from online competition. Here, we take a look at how social robots are playing a role in this retail experience shift.

Humanizing retail with robots

We understand how that sounds… humanizing experiences by using robots? We will come to that shortly. Let’s start off by thinking about how robots are used today in retail – it’s very common to consider the likes of Amazon’s warehouse robots, industrial manufacturing robots, shelf-stacking robots, or perhaps even delivery robots. But how does the concept of a robot that will be the welcoming face that greets you as you walk into your favourite store sound?

Brick-and-mortar retailers have been fighting a battle for survival in the era of online shopping for a while, a struggle that has only been exacerbated due to the recent pandemic. The OECD writes that in the EU, retail sales via mail order or internet shopping in April 2020 increased by a staggering 30%, compared to April 2019. In the opposite direction, retail store sales diminished by 17.9%.

The recent trend of online buyer behaviour is putting physical stores out of favor, especially considering the long-term nature that is expected of these new purchasing habits.

So the question facing the retail industry is – how can physical stores stay relevant in a time where online sales are booming? The answer – unique customer experiences that simply cannot be achieved in the virtual world.

Shaping modern-day retail experiences

If you have followed us online recently, you will have likely come across our blog on social simulation – i.e. simulating scenarios with the Furhat robot for the purpose of employee training. Additionally, as well as helping staff members gain better access to hands-on training, social robots are capable of having a more direct impact in customer-facing roles. Our team of Furhateers together created the retail store assistant concept, based on a pilot project in collaboration with Middle-Eastern communications giant Etisalat, and fashion retailer Mango.

Retail store assistant

Social robots will change the way you think about highly personalized in-store customer experiences

The future of retail: 5 ways social robots can enhance customer experiences

Social robots are already improving customer experiences across the world

You may already be aware of social robots being used in retail. Heck, you may already have even met one in your local store. Marty is a retail service robot that was trialled in over 500 supermarkets throughout 2019 in the USA, that roams the aisles and alerts staff of urgent matters. Traveling east, Japan’s oldest department store, Mitsukoshi, took an early step into automated receptionists back in 2015 with a realistic humanoid, ChihiraAico.

Telepresence robots are also becoming a more frequent sight, particularly with cutbacks in staff numbers in physical stores. Multinational food manufacturing company Kellogg’s sought to enhance customer experiences with the Temi robot in their Times Square café. As well as offering value to staff and customers alike, this proved to be a great marketing piece for the brand.

So when it comes to retail specifically, here is how we see social robots enhancing in-store experiences:

1. Meet & Greet

If you’re a frequent user of online shopping services, it’s highly likely that the company you buy through will customize the service to greet you by your name. The website will recommend interesting options based on your preferences and buying history, and when it comes to checkout your payment and delivery details are already stored. In a physical store – none of this is likely the case.

Deploying a social robot can go some way to improving the personalization of the in-store experience. A robot can recognize returning customers based on stored data, engage in personal dialogue and talk to the customer about their purpose of visiting the store.

2. Bridge the virtual and physical worlds

Our retail store assistant project (described above) attempted to bridge this gap. The merging of online and offline experiences is usually far from a seamless journey. Our concept provided Furhat with the capability of scanning QR codes via the integrated camera in the robot’s bust. This code was provided upon the online checkout process, in order for the customer to pick up goods in-store. The products were pre-loaded into nearby lockers, which opened upon validation of the code and proof of identity.

The Furhat platform in particular is designed to be integrated with external systems. Pioneers in the retail space who have already developed a chatbot are intending to integrate this with the robot, meaning that the brand-specific conversational dialogue that has already been designed for the retailer’s audience, can be brought to life with a physical embodiment in the real world.

The future of retail: 5 ways social robots can enhance customer experiences

3. Information provision & recommendations

Interactions in physical stores can be hard to come by, particularly during a pandemic when social distancing and the safety of staff members is crucial. A social robot – let’s not limit ourselves to just one – several social robots deployed in a store can provide information and recommendations to find specific items, upsell products or perhaps remind visitors to wear a mask and keep their distance.

At Furhat Robotics, we have designed our platform so that robot owners can completely customize this offering. Topics of conversation and knowledge of the store can be programmed into the robot, meaning all dialogue is localized to the robot’s surroundings. Even the face, voice and personality of the robot can be adjusted to suit the brand.

4. Source of customer feedback

Social robots engage people in conversation – and what better way to capture feedback than in a casual discussion on the way out of the store. No tedious form filling, no standard checkboxes to tick. Robots can interact with store visitors to seek opinions and reviews about their experience, which provides store managers with actionable data to improve the overall customer experience. This takes much less time for the customer and is a much more fulfilling experience than traditional methods.

5. Entertainment for all

Everyone from children to spouses begrudgingly being taken clothes shopping all benefit from entertainment. Imagine a social robot that can tell stories, jokes, or engage children directly by playing games. This is an additional benefit aside from the main service that can enhance experiences and provide a lasting impression on store visitors, increasing their willingness to return to the store again in future.

Social robots do not replace humans, they are there to improve customer experiences where human resources are lacking, or where it’s not safe for workers to be during these times.

Keeping it Corona-friendly

Social robots use voice technology just like your home voice assistants do. This no-touch solution provides a safe alternative to touchscreens which are widely used. The Washington Post brilliantly writes about how “robots can be just what the doctor ordered in time of social distancing”, particularly with how they can be used to enforce mask-wearing and keeping a distance between others.

But, why robots? I’ve already seen avatars that do the same job…

Retailers are looking for new ways to provide social experiences that humanize in-store experiences. We are well aware of the apparent contrast here – placing robots in stores to humanize the experience. But that’s what social robots are capable of, they provide a social experience. They replace technology that has already removed the social element from experiences, such as touch screens or electronic signs.

All of this is achieved with a computer interface that resembles human-like features. If you’re curious as to why we designed Furhat’s face as we did, check out our blog on the power of animated facial features.

The future of retail: 5 ways social robots can enhance customer experiences

Interested in learning more and sharing this idea with your team?

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