ROBOTS WILL CHANGE THE FACE OF RETAILING

It's quite possible the headline on this column is overblown and that robots will do nothing even similar to changing the face of retailing. But maybe something like that could happen. After all, the ultimate object of many who manage repetitive activities -- whether manufacturing automobiles, picking cases from a depot or running a store -- is to replace hand labor with machines.The earliest examples

It's quite possible the headline on this column is overblown and that robots will do nothing even similar to changing the face of retailing. But maybe something like that could happen. After all, the ultimate object of many who manage repetitive activities -- whether manufacturing automobiles, picking cases from a depot or running a store -- is to replace hand labor with machines.

The earliest examples of replacing manual labor at distribution centers with mechanization centers go back a generation. Various methods of mechanical picking were tried repeatedly, and at great cost. Some of the systems involved an exceedingly complex network of conveyor belts that made the inside of an old watch look simple. They were operated from impressive control towers bristling with lights and switches. Most are now gone. More recently, some of the depots developed at prodigious expense by the now-defunct Webvan were premised on the idea of electronics and mechanics replacing costly human labor. In some instances, systems failed to the degree that they were shut down and pickers redeployed. See Page 13.

But what about retail 'bots? Is there much at store level that could be amenable to automation? Clearly, the answer is that such is already happening.

The best example, of course, is scanning, which greatly simplified the checkout routine, but didn't eliminate human toil altogether. Customer-actuated scanning accomplishes that aim, in a way, by transferring all labor to someone not on the store payroll, namely the customer. Electronic shelf tags are another example of lowering in-store labor, but by transferring some of it to information-system workers.

But let's dream a little; what else could happen at store level in the way of automation? Take a look at the amusing article on Page 14, which describes the "most modern supermarket in the world." (Facts about the store were earlier reported in London's Evening Standard.) The news article describes a supermarket near Vienna, Austria, that makes use of quite a few robotic devices.

Upon entering the store, shoppers are greeted by an electronic voice that cries out a welcome to "the most modern supermarket in the world." Shopping carts are equipped with speaking devices, set to various promotional tasks. And, as a shopping cart is pushed into a certain store area, it commands, "wait, wait, wait; there's a new low price." And with that, electronically displayed gondola prices are recast downward. (Talking carts, and those tiresome speaking scanners, aren't so new.)

Customers are also issued handheld scanners so they can scan their own orders as they pick. At the end of the shopping trip, scanners are plugged into terminals for checkout. (This is far from new.) Meanwhile, a fleet of floor-cleaning 'bots scurry about. Should they bump into a shopper, they say "excuse me, I'd like to clean here." (New but annoying.)

At the front of the store is an area that's open 24 hours; the rest of the store closes at night. From that area, 148 stockkeeping units are dispensed in the manner of a giant vending machine: Products are picked by a robotic arm in response to cash a customer inserts into a receiver. (Piggly Wiggly attempted a fully automated store in the 1930s.)

As is so often the case, much of what seems new is little more than a permutation on the past, but in time some of these distribution and retail ideas may work out.