There’s a lot of conversation about robots taking jobs, but once we put our robots in stores and everyone sees it, they relax.
When Marco Mascorro describes the challenges of bricks and mortar retail as “a billion dollar problem”, he’s not kidding. Stock alone can represent up to half of total invested capital for a business and – even if you’re using the most sophisticated tools – inventory often ‘just sits there’.
Marco knows a thing or two about retail. He’s the CEO and Co-founder of Fellow Robots, a Silicon Valley-based technology company on a mission to solve retailers’ biggest challenges through Artificial Intelligence, Computer Vision and Robotics. He was recognised as one of Forbes ’30 Under 30’ in 2017 and as an MIT Technology Review Innovator Under 35. He and his team have made retail the driving force behind the development of NAVii, a collaborative robot – or cobot – that not only assists in customer service, but uses a combination of imaging and AI to produce real time data and create a true understanding of what’s on the shelves and when.
“Inventory management is the billion dollar problem that pretty much every retailer is facing,” says Marco. “Managing inventory is very complex and for many years has been a problem that hasn’t been solved with traditional systems. Obviously it’s very expensive for a retailer to have inventory sitting somewhere in the store that’s not being sold. It’s a huge problem.”
NAVii was in development for several years, during which time Marco and his team immersed themselves in the world of retail, “not at a lab, but literally at the store where the problems actually happen”, to create a solution that suits everyone across the operation – corporate offices, store managers, employees and customers.
Customers who are welcomed by the cobot can address it in 27 languages and be quickly guided to the location of their desired goods. It’s surprisingly fast, but smart sensors and safety scanners give it the ability to identify – and learn – where obstacles and walls are, as well as very naturally move itself out of the way of customers.
As it travels around the store, its advanced imaging sensors allow it to constantly capture images of the contents of shelves. These images are processed and translated into data using Artificial Intelligence, which is then reported back to the retailer.
Out of stocks, price discrepancies and misplaced items can be fired directly to retail associates on handheld devices, allowing them to make changes in minutes rather than days or weeks. This is a big deal – and a huge factor in the acceptance of NAVii on the shop floor.
Marco explains, “Typically, these are big stores – 130,000 square feet and maybe stock more than eighty thousand products. It can be quite challenging to know where everything is and how many are in stock.” Retail employees, such as those at Lowe, (where NAVii is affectionately known as ‘The Lowebot’), were initially sceptical, but quickly adopted their new robot colleagues. “It’s not a replacement for any job. It helps associates to know exactly where everything is, what inventory is available and lets them spend more time with customers, which is what they mostly like to do.”
It’s not just bricks and mortar stores that benefit. The data gathered by NAVii can feed into ecommerce systems too. “It’s very common for people to head to a website to look at what’s in stock at a specific store but there’s often a very high chance that the information on the website is wrong.” It’s a problem most consumers have encountered, but accurate stock levels can be very simply channelled into a retailer’s online store through the continuous data collection from the cobots.
It might seem like Fellow Robots have it all wrapped up, but Marco is excited for the future. “We’re really in the early days of robotics in general and AI and the implications we see are huge. Retailers have been operating pretty much the same way for hundreds of years and now we’re building tools specifically around data and analytics, so they can be super-efficient and optimised to operate across multiple stores and have the benefit of ecommerce.”
So, is this the future of retail? “That’s the plan,” laughs Marco.