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Robots in Retail: What Investors Need to Know

Jan 06, 2021 by Laura Agadoni
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''I'll be watching you,'' that iconic yet creepy lyric from The Police song ''Every Breath You Take'' now applies to the world of artificial intelligence, or AI.

Now, not only are crazed sociopaths possibly watching you, technology is currently being tested and deployed that watches not only you but also every single item in retail stores: You pick a granola bar off the shelf and cameras immediately follow that granola bar throughout the store. That's one aspect of the world of robots in retail. Find out what else could (literally) be in store.

Robotic possibilities that should be on every investor's radar

So what does robotics in retail stores look like, and how could investors and jobs be impacted? The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports: ''By 2025, more than 150,000 mobile robots could be deployed in brick-and-mortar establishments, according to a report from ABI Research, based in Oyster Bay, N.Y.'' Let's explore some of the ways this could take shape.

Robots take inventory

Robots that roll up and down the aisles at grocery and big-box stores can scan shelves and alert store managers when something is out of stock. They also provide data that shows which products are big sellers and which aren't.

This can be a huge help for store managers when ordering inventory and avoiding the dreaded lost sales due to desired items being out of stock (think toilet paper and paper towels during the first wave of the coronavirus). Robots are convenient and possibly add to the bottom line, yes, but at what monetary cost? And that is the underlying theme with all robotic tech: Is it worth the investment? Walmart (at least for now) says "no" to this one. (See below.)

Tech for checkout

Who doesn't like exiting an Uber with no immediate worries about paying for the ride? Stores that invest in frictionless checkout technology, or what Amazon calls ''Just Walk Out'' shopping, bet you'd like that experience in retail shopping as well. Imagine simply walking out of a store with your merchandise without needing to wait in line to pay. This is possible by combining several tech solutions, which some retail stores are experimenting with.

Tech to answer questions

Remember the days when store employees were on commission and therefore motivated to help customers? That doesn't happen so much anymore, but Lowe's is testing robots, or should we say LoweBots, to answer any questions about products you might have.

Not all robotic tech is desirable

Robots that do mundane jobs retail workers currently undertake will be part of our world in the very near future; in fact, they're already here (in the infancy stage) in many locations. But with transition comes uncertainty -- and not only regarding what to do with all those displaced workers, which is still a conundrum.

Case in point: Walmart severing ties with Bossa Nova after a failed test run of deploying robots in 1,000 Walmart stores to help with managing inventory. The takeaway is that not all innovations regarding robotics will take hold. The trick for investors is to understand which tech will be part of our future and which will go down the way of Theranos.

The Millionacres bottom line

The key to predicting which robots will likely take hold in retail establishments and which won't often boils down to whether the new technology will likely produce a decent return on investment (ROI).

Robotic tech is expensive -- to purchase and maintain -- and investors need to weigh the costs with the possible benefits to the company. The questions retailers ponder regarding tech are like any investment: Will it benefit the bottom line by either making or saving money?

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