Data’s what you got now, Mr. Roboto, but can you do the job retailers want you to?
Robots are entering the aisles of Walmart, Lowe’s and other major retail chains, managing out-of-stocks, checking prices and even (patent pending) identifying unhappy shoppers. For merchants, they solve longstanding, vexing issues that can seriously upend the shopper experience.
But with the data they can collect, robots can achieve much more — they can promote emotional brand loyalty. That is, if the retailer knows which data to capture and how to use it responsibly and effectively.
The wherewithal exists; it’s just a matter of how technology investments are directed. Six in 10 retailers are increasing their overall technology budgets to improve personalization efforts and social media presence, according to a report by IFTTT, an app-platform provider. More than half, 53%, plan to increase their investments in artificial intelligence (AI) by 2020.
If those investments include the resources to perform reliable data analytics, then AI can support robots that not only help humanize the retail experience, but also add emotional integrity.
Let’s look at what retailers are attempting, and how they could maximize robot love.
I’d like to start with a firsthand example from a store I visited in Paris called Uniqlo. Its robots (one at the entrance and one inside the store) are equipped with tablets through which they could locate products and answer questions in many languages — crucially important in a market of international tourists.
It was seamless and fun, but most memorable was what occurred when I walked away mid-session, after having my questions answered. The robot followed me with its head and eyes, as if to assure my needs were met.
This small activity exemplifies how a robot can help a brand gain emotional loyalty. By following us with its eyes, the robot was inviting us to provide more information and contribute to more precise customer understanding. Essentially, this means collecting and analyzing the specific sets of data necessary to accomplish the predetermined goals that would lead to emotional engagement.
For different brands, this could entail different experiences. But emotional loyalty usually boils down to a key definition: connecting with shoppers at such deep, complex levels that they stick with the brand even when there is a comparable, more convenient or less expensive alternative available.
Achieving this level of loyalty requires thinking contextually about customers — including family, interests, pets, friends and careers. It also is a matter of gaining hard-won trust. By examining today’s robot use, merchants believe that trust will be gained through product availability.
Emotional Value of Availability
Indeed, one-third of shoppers say that finding the item they want, where they expect it, is among the top two reasons for shopping a physical store, according to InMoment, a firm that specializes in customer experience intelligence. This takes regular shelf audits, “a job humans don’t do real well, and don’t really want to do,” Andrew Park, senior director for customer experience strategy at InMoment, told DMNews.com.
Not surprisingly, retailers are using their robots accordingly.
- Walmart: The discounter is testing shelf-scanning robots in more than 50 stores to identify missing and misplaced items, incorrect prices and mislabeling. The 2-foot-tall robots, whichWalmart said are 50% more productive and can scan shelves significantly faster and more accurately than human workers, use cameras to monitor inventory. They then pass the data to employees to resolve problems. Wal-Mart Stores also has filed a patent for a robot that would identify unhappy shoppers through facial recognition software, according to new reports.
- Lowe’s: The home-improvement chain’s LoweBot, introduced in 2016, helps shoppers find items and can answer basic service questions. Shoppers simply enter their requests by voice or touch screen. The robot also tracks inventory and captures data in real time to help detect shopping patterns, Lowe’s states. This enables the retailer to more accurately anticipate when and at what speed different pieces of merchandise move.
- Ahold USA: The supermarket chain is using a robot to prevent injuries. Marty the robot, in tests in Pennsylvania, scans floors for spills and similar hazards while also ensuring items are stocked and properly tagged. By 2018, Ahold USA plans for 12 robots in its Stop & Shop, Giant Food Stores and Giant Food of Maryland stores, according to reports. Perhaps its most engaging feature: The robot has googly eyes. Similarly, Schnuck Markets is testing the Tally robot (also tested by Target) to monitor shelves and stock.
Transfer from Shelf to Heart
These robots perform functional tasks, but their function can be parlayed into emotional engagement if the data they gather helps to shape shopper experiences that gain trust. Here is a basic primer on how to use the data to build emotional loyalty.
- Draw your emotional path: The merchant has to identify which experiences are relevant enough to cause its best shoppers to choose its brand over others, even when the competition is more convenient. For some shoppers, a relevant experience is the ability to find products easily with a child in tow; for others, it is a fast checkout or in-store expertise. Regardless, they all come down to the same thing: “This brand understands my needs and values me.” Once these values are determined, it’s time for step two.
- Commit to the shopper: The retailer should then base every decision it makes on what is best for that shopper, not on what is best for itself. When a retailer adopts customer-committed processes, it is forced to see what its own experience looks like in the shopper’s world, not vice versa. This in turn helps determine which pieces of data are necessary to inform product and operational decisions that serve the shopper’s goal — knowing that more data is not always better data.
- Rally the troops: Regardless of whether shopper data is coming from a robot or a reward program, its best chances for optimization occur when it is shared across departments. Retail leaders can motivate the entire organization, down to the aisle workers, to responsibly share and use customer data to inform all departmental functions, from store location to promotions. Doing so in the context of the shoppers’ lifestyles and preferences will result in relevant experiences.
Relevance in turn will lead to lasting customer intimacy and, ultimately, emotional loyalty with the brand. If robots can help retailers do that, then we owe them a big thank-you.