Once again, building material manufacturers are being left behind by big boxes. This time it’s Lowe’s who is testing robots in store while manufacturers continue to shy away from trying anything new or risky. The only innovation you’ll find at most manufacturers has to do with making their plants run more efficiently so they can keep milking their cash cows.
Most building material manufacturers won’t take the time to get on a plane to San Jose to see this innovation first hand. They’ll sit back and wait to see if it works. Then they’ll wonder what happened when a competitor sees how to help Lowe’s make robots work better and they lose business.
The robots may or may not work out. The idea is that Lowe’s is pushing the envelope of sales and marketing while most manufacturers continue to live in the past. In each product category there is an opportunity for a manufacturer to step ahead of the competition by being the innovative marketer.
Meet Lowe’s Latest Workers: Robots
It sounds like a science fiction headline, but Lowe’s is introducing robotic shopping assistants at its Orchard Supply Hardware store in San Jose, CA. The robots, called OSHbots, are collaboration between Lowe’s and Fellow Robots, a startup dedicated to designing robotics to solve retail problems. Fellow Robots claims that “when most think about robots, we might think R2D2 and C3PO from Star Wars. But is this reality or science fiction? What if we could have a buddy to help guide us in the right direction, answer the difficult questions, help us make smart decisions?” They are dedicated to moving retail forward into the future (here is an introductory video for their company).
OSHbots will greet and interact with customers by using natural language-processing technology. The trial OSHbots speak both English and Spanish. Lowe’s plans to add more languages.
The robots have a scanner to help customers identify products, a product promotion screen, and a communication screen through which customers can interact with experts at different Orchard stores. OSHbot uses lasers to sense its surroundings and create a map of its space which allows it to direct customers to product locations. The promotions displayed will change as OSHbot guides customers to different areas of the store. The LIDAR technology is the same tech used in Google’s self-driving cars.
The video screens will have experts available to help with certain types of projects via videoconferencing. The 3D scanner will assist customers with matching products such as nails or hinges. That is, customers can bring a physical object to the robot; they will scan it and match the product size and details.
Watch OSHbot in action.
Although Lowe’s has placed its business on the cutting edge with this move, it remains to be seen whether current technology can match the company’s aspirations. This trial—intelligently planned for the holiday shopping season—will prove whether it is economical to use robots as a means of bridging the gap between brick and mortar retail and e-commerce. The company picked San Jose as the perfect place to test the robots since the market is already “so tech-savvy,” said Lowe’s spokesperson Amanda Manna.
Robotic technology is still too pricey for large-scale implementation. The LIDAR navigation unit alone costs over $50,000. Even the trial store will only have two robots, though the company is open to introducing four or six robots per store. Kyle Nel, executive director of Lowe’s Innovation Labs, put it best: “We have to see how things go in a real environment.” Like any tech product, the price will drop and the performance will improve over time. If the trial goes well, Lowe’s could begin putting OSHbots in more stores as early as next year.
Worries about robots replacing human retail workers should be quieted by Nel’s dual vision for Lowe’s retail stores: “It’s really honestly and truly not about reducing workforce.” As the video consultation feature might indicate, Nel wants sales associates to concentrate on “helping customers with their projects and solving their problems,” and rounding out an individual store’s set of employees with digital assistance from other stores. Nel’s bottom line: “We can let the robots answer questions like, ‘where are the hammers?'” You can read more interview comments from Nel here.
If you sell to Lowe’s or Home Depot you should be on a flight to San Jose soon.