The Event Horizon of In-Store Retail Automation

It came out of nowhere: A muffled, mechanical voice with electronica undertones called out “Hel-lo there.” It was leering down at me and a few other eTail West attendees: Over 7’6”, a fiberglass robot straight out of a Transformers movie with giant glowing blue eyes and dark mechanical fingers that looked as if they had 300 psi of hydraulic force – enough to crush a car.

Of course, this robot was a ContentSquare-emblazoned suit with a person inside, but the subsequent conversation was surreal.  “Can I take a picture?” a fellow attendee blurted out.  “Cer-tain-ly.  Step ov-er here for a nice-ly lit shot,” in staccato English with the eerie, deep mechanical voice.  The neurons in my head started firing.

Suppose this robot was real? The technology is mostly here.  We have natural language processing, basic AI functionality, robotic prosthetics, centralized controllers.  Now – how about if we gave it a bit more capability – perhaps even manage basic functions in a retail environment.  How about pick and pack capabilities, identifying objects on store shelves and labeling processes.  What about moving it to the front room and engaging with actual customers?  I’m sure it could handle basic questions such as where to find my size 34 jeans or directions to the restroom.  Add a camera or two and it becomes a surveillance device as well – mobile and dynamic for loss prevention and security.  Maybe even a checkout with a torso based kiosk to scan items and a POS.

 

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Can an Old Dog Learn New Tricks ?

Martin Gill

Hot off the press from last week’s Retail Week conference, “HMV will still have a portfolio of hundreds of stores on the high street in five years, HMV CEO Simon Fox told delegates”

And so they should.

But in my opinion, some careful thought is needed to position the store chain alongside HMV’s evolving digital persona.  HMVDigital, launched last July, is their take on iTunes. As a digital destination for downloading music it seems to stand on its own two feet. Product scope is a little limited in that it’s music only (no videos), but I can only assume that they have a roadmap to open up new product categories over time.

They are clearly set on taking on iTunes at their own game, a fact that is evident from the site’s logo when you link to it from HMV.com – the old familiar, faithful HMV hound listening to a gramophone, sat right in the middle of a now familiar iPod control wheel.  An interesting choice.

It would be a shame if all HMV did here was attempt to mimic iTunes, as they have one ace up their sleeve that iTunes can’t (yet) mimic; a nationwide chain of high street stores staffed with music loving store colleagues. Although the products may become digital, I believe that there is a place for human interaction that multichannel retailers such as HMV can capitalise on. And interestingly, from the tone of his Retail Week address, Fox believes this too.

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