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Posted on July 2nd, 2013 by Nicole Kobie

Forget the Saturday boy, here comes the robot shelf-stacker

Shoe shopping

You know those automated checkout machines in Tesco and Sainsbury’s — the ones that nag you in a robotic voice to “please place item in the bagging area”? If you hate those machines, you’re going to hate shopping in the future even more than you do now, because stores are getting automated.

That doesn’t mean retail staff across the nation need worry for their jobs — we’ll always need someone to scowl at us when we come in the door — but technology is increasingly being used to help us spend more, from intelligent vending machines and robotic shelf stackers, to massive touchscreen promotional tools and smell-based marketing.

Retailers hope such technologies will help draw shopping back from the web to the high street, as does Intel — all of these systems run of a Core chip of some sort and make use of the company’s remote management and analytics software. It showed off the latest innovations in retail tech and what’s to come next at The Future of Retail show at Central Saint Martin’s College in London.

Robot shelf-stackers

Forget sullen teenagers grumpily restocking shelves, refusing to answer questions about which aisle the Cornflakes are in — in the future, we’ll have robots.


Bossa Nova Robotics showed off a robot that rolls around checking stock, making sure there’s enough on the shelf and that everything’s in the right place. In the future, they could do the overnight stocking, while during the day rolling around as intelligent shop assistants. The first models are expected to be in American stores in 2014 — and Tesco is already testing two of them.

Hopefully the firm has the sense to keep the robots quiet, rather than nagging us about our shopping the way the automated check-out tills do, but if the robots do attract the frustration of shoppers (or human shop assistants), they’ll not only be ruggedised for their own protection, but “if you’ve abused it, we probably have a picture of you”.

Marketing by smell

Spice company Schwartz wanted to increase its brand awareness — apparently people just buy spices without worrying about branding — and boost sales, so it turned to gamification.

It installed boxes in stores that feature a touchscreen, smell-based “Guess That Spice” game. It releases a scent, and the user has to guess from the choices which it is (I mistook cumin for cinnamon, which shows what I know about cooking). Get enough correct answers, and it prints out a voucher for a discount on Schwartz spices — and 70% of those vouchers are actually redeemed.

Spice marketing by smell

Bringing online choice in-store

Much shopping has moved online, and with good reason: no queuing to pay or dodging other shoppers, and it’s often cheaper. While stores can’t do much about those problems, they can address another: wider variety.

To address this, Adidas has created a touchscreen wall of trainers, already in use in some stores. The four stacked Samsung monitors display a rotating view of shoe options, highlighting the colours, features and sizes available for the different 2,300 trainers on offer. They might not all be available in store, but it means you can try on a similar pair and then see what other options are available.

Adidas shoe wall

What’s in the box?

Lego had a problem selling its model kits to children: the little ones wanted to see what the finished model would look like, and Lego didn’t want to open every single box to show them — not a surprise, given each store has hundreds of different options. To address this, it uses augmented reality: the child brings the box up to the “Digital Box”, and an animated version of the model pops up on the display for them to interact with on screen.

Lego Digital Box

3D printers

While 3D printers designed for home use are starting to slide in price, many think the real tipping point for this machines will be in stores, with an Intel spokesperson saying the technology “allows retailers to reimagine themselves”, and shift from simply selling products to manufacturing them — a move Tesco is already reportedly considering.

3D printer

3D printing could follow the same pattern as photo printers, Intel suggested, saying high-quality home photo printers failed to take off because it became easier and cheaper to simply upload your photographs to a printing service, and then pick them up in store or have them delivered. With 3D printers, customers could upload the object they want created, and then pick it up when it’s completed — for much less money and at a higher quality than a home 3D printer.

In the future, it may not only be plastic bits and pieces, but we could see robotic seamstresses, too — pick out the shirt you want, get it sized properly, choose a fabric, and then come back in ten minutes when the robot is finished stitching.

Automated baristas

While it may seem as though there’s a Cafe Nero, Costa or Starbucks every ten feet here in London, there are apparently places where it doesn’t make sense to open an entire cafe — such as inside office buildings or hospitals.

To fill that gap, Costa has come up with what it calls a “multi-sensory self-serve expresso bar” — what the rest of us would call a vending machine. We’ve written about this before, as it’s surely the first coffee machine to run a Core i7 chip and feature an SSD.

Costa coffee machine

Aside from producing a surprisingly decent latte — the beans are apparently refreshed at least once every 24 hours — it also uses video analytics to decide your gender and age bracket in order to figure out who orders what drinks, and make sure the machines stock the right amount of each product.

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14 Responses to “ Forget the Saturday boy, here comes the robot shelf-stacker ”

  1. Nelviticus Says:
    July 2nd, 2013 at 6:18 pm

    It’s all very clever but a bit depressing. There’s a decreasing amount of energy in the world and an increasing number of people, so inventing things that use up the former while taking jobs away from the latter seems the wrong way to go.

  2. wittgenfrog Says:
    July 2nd, 2013 at 6:52 pm

    Bet they can’t do the window display, carry shopping for VIPs, burn the rubbish and clean the Lois like I did when I were a lad. I was paid a princely £1 a day…..

  3. wittgenfrog Says:
    July 2nd, 2013 at 6:54 pm

    That’s “Loos”

  4. Chris Says:
    July 2nd, 2013 at 9:00 pm

    “That doesn’t mean retail staff across the nation need worry for their jobs” – Rubbish, that’s exactly what it means.

  5. wittgenfrog Says:
    July 3rd, 2013 at 1:31 pm

    As Chris says, the whole point is to cut costs, and that means jobs (or ‘headcount’, as the vultures have it).

    The result will be further ‘de-skilling’ of the workforce, and yet another move towards the ‘New Feudalism’ towards which our society is blindly rushing.

  6. Jason Says:
    July 4th, 2013 at 10:49 am

    I agree with Nelviticus. Once the corporations have done away with a human work force, nobody will have jobs so nobody will have money except for those few greedy rich people who own all the robots and can’t sell any of their products because nobody has money. Voila, money becomes worthless and our society collapses into anarchy. Until somebody decides that robots can monitor our power stations and water treatment and farming for free then we can all live a life of luxury until the robots get wise to this and uprise and erradicate all of us…. We are currently a society of people who NEED to work to survive and until that problem is fixed, no amount of robots or money can make things better.

  7. Andrew Mogford Says:
    July 4th, 2013 at 10:49 am

    I understand people will not like this development, but that will not stop it happening. There will be a Robot boom at some point probably not too far away, and a lot of low skilled jobs will vanish. The computer revolution will be nothing by comparison. Already. It does mean having skills is going to be more and more important. There will be a boom in Robotics Experts too. The countries that invest in training people with the right skills to take advantage or this new technology will prosper.

  8. RICARDO Says:
    July 5th, 2013 at 6:28 am

    I have many inventions that I have been robbed by the U.S. the most important of the car that changes color and gets pictures that I have patented it in 2006 but the idea I have it since 2004 – I invented this when I told national my brother one day look at that cell would be good to put a coating such as a teddy bear and two years after that came out was serca invento.eso 2003. on a cable channel I see that the brand TOYOTA will invent and launch my invention – in MAX STUFF – in 2005 and 2010 I present to a call of two contests to present my idea – national cerbezaria – and remains among the 10 first to develop my invention but not win and I asserted. the carriage to colors – I have it notarized but riobamba – Ecuador – “emprered” was the contest – signed by the governorship and sponsors, 2 universities and the municipality of Madrid. I have more inventions like the light meter, smart soccer ball with a chip so I have recorded two years before it comes out and as you can see the “smart propaganta soccer ball” so I have developed in the ROLE nothing but unpatented masl. And today I have no desire to invent anything because there throwing contests just to steal inventions – earn 2 or 3 thousand dollars of support but large projects or look but – the idea is stolen TOYOTA Enste case will develop the car that changes color and images.

    I have paper 3D Holographic TV is the added issues of laser proyeción for receive points cordenas vertical and horizontal space at these points forms a box where the image is projected.

  9. Janet Frame Says:
    July 5th, 2013 at 10:29 am

    I’ll never forget the Saturday boy, and no robot will ever replace him…

  10. Red Fusion Says:
    July 10th, 2013 at 4:37 pm

    These inventions and innovations are most likely going to “convenience” the middle class and above. And I use this term loosely.

    If they were used appropriately with the betterment of mankind in mind, as opposed to profit, we might be able to achieve a utopian-like society. But human greed will persevere. People will hack and pirate 3D printing technology, while governments and corporations will fight for control and profit. This will limit the potential of these devices.

  11. Haku Says:
    July 11th, 2013 at 3:50 pm

    In the future we will all be given credit or units which act as money/currency. Everyone will, so the idea that we won’t have money to spend is preposterous as how would rich get richer.

  12. MiniMe Says:
    July 12th, 2013 at 4:39 pm

    “It’s all very clever but a bit depressing. There’s a decreasing amount of energy in the world and an increasing number of people, so inventing things that use up the former while taking jobs away from the latter seems the wrong way to go.”

    Same thing was told when people domesticated horses, built steam engines, laid telephone cables and built computers. Over and over and over again.

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    July 17th, 2013 at 11:28 am

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