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Emotional robots: Why the next stage of robotics isn’t going to take off for retail

Lizzie Bristow
Lizzie Bristow

There has been a lot of talk recently about robots in retail, and in particular of so-called ‘chatbots’. Chatbots are designed to bolster conversational commerce to provide the consumer with an enjoyable and social shopping experience online. But is this really what consumers want?

Many, myself included, would argue that it isn’t. Shopping in-store provides a welcome, social and human element to shoppers’ purchasing experiences, while online buying presents a quick and convenient alternative. While we are happy to converse with in-store staff, I wonder if a computer-generated conversation with a chatbot would, in fact, create an unauthentic and synthetic feel, rather than the personal touch that’s intended?

Unsurprisingly, chatbots aren’t the peak of retailers’ robotic ambitions. Patrick Levy Rosenthal, founder and CEO at Emoshape, goes as far as saying that by giving robots emotions, we could avoid the much-feared, dystopian ultimatum of a bitter war between humans and machine.

In their present form, robotic customer services or automated responses keep the customer a step removed from the brand, eliminating the direct, personable interaction that many consumers value. This means retailers may have been missing the opportunity for immediate feedback and the chance to correct any mishaps in real-time.

To add to this, with more than 900,000 jobs expected to be lost in the retail sector by 2025, the rise of chatbot certainly won’t be a welcome one for manned help desks and customer service workers. But they have nothing to fear for a while at least, if Microsoft’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) bot, Tay, is anything to go by.

Chatbots aside, machines have a strong and welcome place in retail. Devices that aid store staff to fulfil their full potential and support operations across the store estate are already helping retailers to deliver on omnichannel promises as consumers’ expectations heighten. Technology can act as a bridge between the online and physical shopping environments, supporting multichannel shoppers who no longer differentiate between channels and want to have the same fluid experience, no matter how or where they shop.

The rise of the machine is inevitable – I just don’t think it will result in ‘robot wars’, or the end of humans taking the lead role in the delivery of customer service. People still want the social experience when shopping and that includes having real-life interactions with humans, who can respond to their needs and demands in a tailored, emotive and understanding manner. It’s true that some jobs will be lost as a result of money-saving tech innovations, but retailers will also appreciate the value of their existing store staff. In turn, store staff will need to become experts in their fields and work harder to prove to head office the value humans bring to the business as a whole.

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