Would a Humanoid Robot Help Grocers Avoid Annoyed Customers?

Demo video shows what a Strongpoint and Halodi Robotics collaboration could bring to retail.

If, during the course of your weekly grocery shopping, you passed an upright humanoid-looking robot with an LED grin roaming the aisles, what would your reaction be? Would you smile back? Would you take a selfie with it? Would you wave your hand and say out loud “This isn’t the droid we’re looking for” (only to immediately regret that decision)?

You should think about your answer now because it might not be that far off when you’re confronted with this exact situation.

Last week, Norwegian grocery retail tech company Strongpoint posted a concept video (see above) of what a re-stocking robot might look like someday. The video featured a humanoid robot from Halodi Robotics, which Strongpoint invested in and partnered with back in March.

Halodi’s robot scoots around on two wheels, has two arms capable of carrying 8 kilograms each and a friendly electronic face. In the video, the smiling robot helps store workers carry items, scan store shelves for empty spot and even re-stocks depleted items. (There’s also a rather sad moment when everyone’s gone home, all the lights are shut off and the robot continues to work, alone, in the dark.)

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Autonomous shelf-scanning robots aren’t new, and if you live in the right places you could see one today. Simbe Robotics recently expanded its deployment with Schnucks Markets to all 110 of that retailer’s locations and it just signed on Hy-Vee for a pilot program last week.

Simbe’s Tally robot, however, is not humanoid at all. It’s a tall, skinny, self-driving column — though it also has a cute LED eyes.

Shelf-scanning grocery robots made headlines last November… for the wrong reasons when Walmart announced it was severing ties with Bossa Nova. Up until then, Walmart and Bossa Nova seemed like two peas in a robotic pod, with the retailer planning to deploy Bossa Nova’s shelf-scanners to 1,000 of its stores.

Bossa Nova’s shelf-scanning robots were even more industrial looking than Simbe’s, and when the Walmart deal imploded, The Wall Street Journal reported one of the reasons the retailer got cold feet was “Walmart U.S. chief executive John Furner has concerns about how shoppers react to seeing a robot working in a store.”

This wasn’t the first time questions arose around robot and customer interactions in stores. Badger Technologies went so far as to put googley eyes on its Marty robot to make it less menacing to unsuspecting shoppers.

Will a humanoid-shaped robot with its actual arms and “face” be more amenable to unsuspecting customers? Or will limbs and facial features inch customer reaction closer to an uncanny valley they can’t get past?

Look, I’ll fully admit that perhaps I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. When I spoke with Luke Tingley, Senior Vice President & Chief Technology Officer at Hy-Vee this week, he said that its early tests with Tally were no big deal. “The first store we put it in, customers did double take,” Tingley said, “It moves slow and doesn't sneak up on anyone.” He continued, “We've been pretty happy with that so far. People post pictures with it on social media.” People have generally been pretty accepting of the Tally so far, Tingley said.

The broader point is that we are still very early on in the adoption of automation in grocery stores and we still don’t exactly know how human workers and customers will respond to robots rolling alongside shopping carts. But because we are still early on, it’s good for retailers about the easiest transition towards automation for everyone involved.

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