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Lo-res_BLD017026-SFor shy or introverted shoppers, who find the prospect of interacting with sales clerks unpleasant, one of Sprint’s Japanese divisions may have just the answer: robots that can help people complete their entire sales transaction. The remarkable and technologically advanced Pepper robots are vaguely humanoid in their design, but they are programmed solely and specifically to provide service to customers seeking help in making a purchase.

Although Pepper is available for various retail and service uses (including banks, hotels, and hospitals), at the SoftBank Sprint store, the robots greet people as they enter the stores, explain how the various phones work and what features they offer, and make suggestions about which products and plans make the most sense for customers. Then they complete the transaction, enabling the customer to walk out of the store with a new phone and plan, without ever speaking with another person.

Pepper’s software enables it to recognize not just human speech but bodily movements too. It is programmed to gauge the emotion expressed in human voices as well, to ensure that its responses are appropriate and matched with the shopper’s needs. The robots have proven highly popular already, such that the manufacturer is having trouble keeping up with demand.

There’s no reason to expect that demand to slow either. Many consumers appear to appreciate the efficiency of working with a robot, which can access vast amounts of information and is not subject to any sort of emotional responses, even if the retail transaction becomes difficult. Research also has shown that many of the tasks that sales and service people currently provide could be automated. For example, one study indicated that nearly half of the functions currently provided mostly by human cashiers could easily be automated. Doing so would clearly lead to cost benefits for retailers, while potentially appealing even more to customers.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are some advantages and disadvantages of replacing sales and service people with robots in stores?
  2. How would you feel if faced with the prospect of purchasing a phone and plan from a robot?

Source: Tom Ryan, Retail Wire, February 1, 2016