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.