Retail Robotics: Possibilities and Limitations of Automation

HAL, the Terminator, C-3PO… It used to be that robots were only in science fiction. Sometimes they were scary, and other times they were useful (Rosie from The Jetsons, anyone?) But fiction sometimes become truth and now robots are no longer just for the stories – they’re reality.

Retail robotics are no exception. Warehouse automation, self-checkouts, inventory replenishment… the list goes on. Robots present a lot of opportunity for retail, but they have their limitations too. Let’s look at what those are…

Inventory Monitoring

Retail Robotics Opportunity:

Inventory monitoring automation could let manufacturers know when their stock is low and automatically send for re-fills.

Robots can also go into cold storage facilities humans cannot, as Ocado does.

Retail Robotics Limitation:

Robots that do it all for us are, unfortunately, still far off. For now, at least, robots can’t place stock items on-shelf. That’s still something a person has to do.

And even automated inventory management systems have their limitations, as we recently wrote about in our phantom inventory post.

The truth is that while valuable, robots aren’t infallible – and in some cases can’t even do the necessary task.


Retail Robotics Opportunity:

This is one we are seeing a lot of recently. Even Costco has announced they are looking at installing self-checkout stations. And we have seen the prevalence of the cashierless Amazon Go stores. This is an example of automation at work and what we might have feared from those science fiction shows long ago – that robots will one day take our jobs.

Retail Robotics Limitation:

As useful as self-checkouts can be, they aren’t foolproof. In fact, one Canadian Tire store even removed theirs recently.

In many stores, there is a cashier dedicated to the self-checkout aisle to assist customers who run into problems.

When we look at the Amazon Go model, while it is “cashierless” there are still some staff requirements. Also, their AI system is one that might not work for every retailer – it takes shifting the entire store model.

So, while robots are checking us out of store more often, they don’t do it alone.

Transportation and Delivery

Retail Robotics Opportunity:

Robotic delivery has been a recent trend. FedEx Corp announced an autonomous delivery robot that helps retailers make same-day and last-mile deliveries. They plan to test the robot this summer in select markets.

Ocado has also helped automate the transportation process with advanced picking and packing for grocery. As we wrote previously, Ocado robots take care of automated food packing, advanced storage, improved demand forecasting, and more. This still requires human drivers but…

Kroger is reportedly testing a driverless vehicle fleet. In the future, could we see delivery trucks packing and driving themselves?

Retail Robotics Limitation:

Although robotics is improving the shipping and handling process, it can’t do everything. Even when we look at delivery robots and self-driving vehicles, they have their limits – distance, for example, and also weather.

Being in Canada, we can’t forget that half of our year is spent in snow and ice. A sidewalk delivery robot would have a hard time making it over an unplowed snowbank! And when we look at the more rural areas of our country, self-driving delivery could still be harder to achieve when there is a further distance to go.

We also have examples that consumers in Canada aren’t quite embracing eCommerce as readily as our U.S. counterparts. In fact, the recent PwC Canada 2019 Canadian Consumer Insights Survey found that 62% of grocery shoppers still prefer going in store.

Where do you see the future of retail robotics going? Let us know on social media. Marketsupport Canada is on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

We can help your brand or retailer fill the gaps that robots cannot. Contact us today to learn more. Call 1-877-421-5081 or visit

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