When Orchard Supply Warehouse, a California based home improvement and gardening retailer, was purchased by Lowe’s last year, its employees probably expected the changes that typically come with new ownership. What they probably didn't expect was to become the pilot for a new robot “greeter” at their San Jose, California location.
Developed through a partnership between Lowe’s and start-up Fellow Robots, OSHbot, a five foot tall robot made of white plastic, “will be able to provide customers details on items in the store and will also walk—er, wheel customers to the exact location of the item(s) they’re looking for.” This is pretty cool in and of itself, but the OSHbot also has the ability to allow customers to video conference with store employees, display relevant ad items while you walk to the products you need, use a 3-D scanner to identify the exact products a customer is looking for, and "walk" with you to where the product is on the shelf. Oh, and it can speak Spanish.
Think about the implications of this for a second. Imagine that you are trying to put together an old family table and all of the nuts and bolts have been lost except for a single bolt. You have a rough idea of what size the bolt is, but you’re unsure if it’s standard or metric - or you forget metric exists (me, every time I’m wondering why I can’t find the right-sized socket). The OSHbot can identify the size bolt you need and any other items that you might need along the way, saving you those three extra trips back to Lowe’s. (Don’t lie. It’s happened to you too.)
It's definitely a cool, forward-thinking concept, and it's exciting to think about expansion possibilities if the current pilot does well. For those concerned about the OSHbot replacing human customer service, it's worth noting that it doesn’t really look like it’s geared towards replacing person-to-person interaction - rather, it's designed to make those interactions smarter and more efficient. For instance, one of the main drivers around the OSHbot is to free up Lowe’s expert employees so they can give more in-depth, project related questions. You can even reach an employee who has expertise in the area you need for your project through the OSHbot’s video conference tools.
As a home improvement consumer, I'll probably always feel that there is something irreplaceable about being able to walk into a retailer and talk to a real live person about tools, and garden and home improvement projects. Home improvement isn't the only product category where this is true, but I think it's particularly true the hardware retail space that technology can take us only so far. Maybe it's partly getting to tell stories about how I forgot about the metric system. Or maybe it's the value of talking with a sales associate about their experiences with past projects and how that experience can help you enhance your home improvement. Neither of these will ever be the same with an OSHbot, no matter how sophisticated their programming becomes.
It will be interesting to see if consumers in the tech-savvy San Jose community embrace the OSHbot this holiday season. Whether they do will give other retailers and interested observers like us at IMC some valuable insight into how best to strike the balance between technology and human customer service in the retail space.