This is how humans and robots can coexist in the workforce

This is how humans and robots can coexist in the workforce

Scottish supermarket chain Margiotta hired – and fired - their first in-store robot within one week earlier this year.

‘Fabio’ struggled with moving around the store and directing customers to the products they were looking for.

Furthermore, a German consumer electronics retail chain also found their instore robot ‘Tom’ was being avoided by shoppers, so they programmed it to dance ‘Gangnam style’ in a bid to engage customers.

It’s going to take a lot of ‘technological ingenuity’, but robots can potentially work very smoothly with both customers and employees, according to Dr Rebecca Dare, managing director of the Australian Consumer, Retail and Services (ACRS) commercial research unit within Monash Business School’s Department of Marketing.

In particular, Dr Dare said that with some improved ‘intelligent’ facial designs robots can be a successful introduction to the Australian retail market.

“Australians may balk at the thought of engaging with a robot when grocery shopping, but they could deliver a number of positives – including faster product selection, aisle navigation and payment options – which could draw shoppers back to the bricks-and-mortar stores,” Dr Dare said.

“Further development of in-store robots that encourage human interaction is required before they can have a positive and meaningful impact on retailers and customers.

Walmart has commenced testing a new autonomous robot called ‘Auto-C’ in 78 stores across the USA which is responsible for scrubbing the floors. The technology will soon be deployed to more than 360 stores, allowing Walmart employees to better engage with customers.

Dr Dare added that a lack of engagement between robots and humans is due to a “misalignment of the robot’s design and job description”.

“One key design element is the face of the robot. Looking at the in-store robots available today, such as ‘Tom’, ‘Pepper’, and ‘Paul’, most have been designed with round, friendly, albeit submissive faces,” Dr Dare said.

Even though these types of faces signal kindness and trustworthiness, Dr Dare said that a design of longer and more dominant faces signal competence and intelligence – which is important for the role these robots are being hired to do in retail stores.

Dr Dare said robot developers and retailers also needed to align their technology with customer needs and products to optimise customer engagement.

“In addition to the facial shape, in-store robots should connect shoppers with human assistance when required, rather than remove human connection from the shopping experience,” she said.

This is an important consideration, especially when 75% of global customers on average want to interact with a real person more as technology improves.

In fact, this is particularly high among customers in Germany, USA, and Australia (84%, 82% and 81% respectively).