They're here: Autonomous retail service robots
Nov. 10, 2014
by Mark Ollig

A Lowe’s Orchard Supply Hardware store, located in tech-savvy midtown San Jose, CA, will soon begin using advanced, interactive robots for in-store customer service.

There will be two high-tech autonomous robots used. They are being called OSHbots, which stands for Orchard Supply Hardware robots.

These friendly-looking, and independently-operating robots, will listen with what appears to be a bit of empathy, while a customer explains, or shows the OSHbot what they are looking for.

Imagine a customer walking into a hardware store, holding up an item to an OSHbot and saying “I need more of these.”

This OSHbot would search its database, and display the item on its screen so the customer sees it.

The robot then asks in English (or the customer’s preferred language), “Is this the item?”

Not only that, the OSHbot then tells the customer where the item is located inside the store, and will even “walk” (via its wheels) with them to where the item is located on the store’s shelf.

Pretty cool, huh?

The OSHbot has a built-in 3D sensing camera, allowing it to scan an item brought in and shown to it by a customer. The OSHbot will then determine if the store has the item in stock.

One video demonstration shows an OSHbot approaching a customer as they enter the store. In a pleasing voice, it says “Hello, I am OSHbot, the Orchard store robot helper. What are you looking for today?”

This person asks for a specific-sized hammer.

The OSHbot is then seen traveling down a store aisle, along with the customer, saying “I’ll take you to the plumb 16 ounce flat contoured handle hammer aisle.”

Each OSHbot knows the complete inventory of what is in the store, and can tell a customer if an item is available on the store shelves, or is currently out of stock.

If a robot becomes confused, or needs an answer to a difficult question, it has the ability to communicate with the store’s human employees.

The OSHbots contain multiple sensors, including “collision avoidance” programming.

This programming allows them to navigate throughout a particular store without bumping into anything (or anyone).

Your always-investigative columnist found and read the Lowe’s Companies, Inc. October 28 press release titled, “The Future of Shopping has Arrived and its Name is OSHbot.”

“Using science fiction prototyping, we explored solutions to improve customer experiences by helping customers quickly find the products and information they came in looking for,” said Kyle Nel, executive director of Lowe’s Innovation Labs, which is presenting the two retail service robots at the Orchard Supply Hardware store.

The media contact person at Lowes Companies Inc. responded to my request for an interview about the OSHbots with, “Unfortunately, we are in our quiet period ahead of earnings later this month and are unable to facilitate interviews at this time.”

So, my faithful readers, once I am able to have my OSHbot questions answered from Lowes, I will write an updated column about these Autonomous Retail Service Robots, and how they are handling real-life, in-store customer situations.

If you have any OSHbot questions, email them to me, and I’ll add them to my list for when I am granted an interview with Lowe’s.

Lowe’s also made this comment in their press release regarding the store’s human employees; “OSHbot will provide an additional layer of support by helping customers with simple questions, enabling more time for them [store human employees] to focus on delivering project expertise.”

Fellow Robots is the name of the Silicon Valley high-tech company Lowe’s Innovation Labs collaborated with in designing and developing these autonomous robots

This company was founded in 2012, and demonstrated its first concept robot during the January 2013 Consumer Electronics Show.

Orchard Supply Hardware began in 1931, and was originally stocked with orchard ladders, picking pails, sprays, fertilizers, and other farming supplies.

Today, they focus on “paint, repair and the backyard” in 71 stores in California, and two in Oregon.

I learned Orchard Supply Hardware was purchased last year by Lowe’s, the national home improvement hardware store retailer.

Orchard Supply uploaded an informative two-and a-half minute video to YouTube introducing their new robots. It can be seen at: http://tinyurl.com/qfgsm3c.

Yes, dear readers, we are moving into an era of being provided in-store customer assistance via autonomous robots – hopefully, they’ll all have pleasant, engaging personalities.

Pictures of an OSHbot assisting a customer searching for a particular roofing nail, and traversing a store aisle, can be seen at: http://tinyurl.com/qyf4tno and http://tinyurl.com/kzrrrkf.

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