Could Your Next Store Visit Be Guided by a Robot? IBM Hopes So

Editors' pick: Originally published Jan. 21.

Imagine walking into a store to be greeted by a friendly robot who guides you to the aisle where you can find those jeans you've had your eyes on. The robot helps you find the right size and then recommends a few tops that might look good with the jeans.

If IBM (IBM) has its way, that is exactly how the future store will work. IBM has partnered with Softbank to make retail robots a reality, and it showed off the experiment at the National Retail Federation's big annual conference. The idea is that Softbank's human-like robots Pepper, which is the first robot that can read emotion, and Nao, which was the company's first humanoid robot, will be powered by IBM's Watson artificial intelligence technology to turn the robot into a store associate.

The robot is currently being tested in Nestlé cafes in Japan, where the robots can converse with customers and explain the cafe's products, and IBM plans to roll them out in a handful of U.S. retailers by June 2016. As of press time, IBM was not able to disclose publicly which retailers it was in talks with.

"Robots present a unique opportunity to increase engagement, allowing people to interact naturally with the technology and communicate not just with words, but gestures as well," said Keith Mercier, IBM Watson Retail Leader. "Think of scaling the knowledge and expertise of a store's top sales associate."

According to IBM, the goal is not to replace human beings in stores but rather to add support. But it's not hard to imagine retailers may be able to save some money by reducing their workforce and installing some robots.


Pepper gives a shopper more information about a dress.

Beyond the possible savings from payroll, retailers may also be drawn to the idea of automating recommendations. Anywhere from 2% to 20% of online retailers' revenue can come from product recommendations, according to Monetate, a company that works with brands on multichannel personalization.

Amazon (AMZN) in particular has shared that 35% of product sales result from its personalized recommendations. IBM and Softbank's partnership may help reproduce those results in a brick-and-mortar environment.

IBM isn't the first to try to bring robots and artificial intelligence into the retail environment. Best Buy (BBY) is testing a robot in one of its New York City stores that brings merchandise to customers who make a request via a touch screen inside the store, and Lowe's (LOW)  has been testing one in a San Jose-area store since 2014 that helps customers find merchandise in the store, but the tests remain limited. Paula Rosenblum, managing partner at research firm Retail Systems Research, can't see IBM's attempt turning out much differently.

"I think [the robots are] ridiculous, honestly," she told TheStreet. "Why in heaven's name would you want a robot to assist you? Retailers really need to stop thinking there's a way around human interaction in stores. I feel their payroll pain, but self-service, which we're still seeing way too much of on convention floors, has gone as far as it can go."

Rosenblum said her sentiments matched this recent video from John Oliver mocking the idea of robots in stores:

 

Forrester analyst Sucharita Mulpuru-Kodali agreed. "I think it's gimmicky now," she said. "Ideally in the future, [Apple's] Siri can answer any store questions for you. That's cheapest for retailers."

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