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Workforce Transformation: The Case for Robots in Retail

I need to preface this story by sadly stating outright that I am not a “DIY” kind of guy. I don’t do construction. When I try and fix things they somehow end up more broken then when I first start. So when I walk into a hardware store I need as much help as I can get. I need someone to help me navigate the complexity. In this respect I am probably like a large percentage of people who walk into your typical hardware store.

But what happens when someone like me walks into Home Depot? More often than not the results are not pretty.

I will give you an example.

It was just before the holidays and we needed to do a couple of small DIY projects to spruce up our home before relatives from out of state visited. Or rather, my wife needed to do some DIY projects while I offered advice and gave direction. Since that wasn’t much of a value add, and a complete annoyance to her, she sent me to do the shopping at Home Depot with a list of five items. In parallel I was in the process of releasing my book and the experience summed up the entire value proposition that the potential of robots bring to both consumers and the companies that deploy them.

The first thing I needed to buy was gloss paint for my wife who was refurbishing and painting an old card catalogue for her and my daughters art studio. My wife assured me that it is a very common product and indeed it is. But since Home Depot has a dizzying number of paint products I felt it was necessary to consult with the “paint consultant” that was stationed at the help desk in the paint section.

“Excuse me do you have any high gloss paint?” I asked.

To which she pleasantly answered that she had actually never heard of such a thing. I tried describing it to her by explaining what it was used for in case I had the name wrong. She looked at me blankly while softly shaking her head side to side. This went on for a few minutes and since I was getting nowhere I decided to go and have a look for myself. I soon got frustrated and left to find the next item on my list.

Think about that for a moment. I was not asking a customer service rep in the garden department about paint. I was asking the person stationed in the paint section about paint. And because she did not have the expertise necessary to help me I did not make a purchase. In fact, out of the five items I was sent to buy I was only able to locate and purchase three of them. This was despite the fact that I am sure that all five of them were in stock.

Home Depot spends a significant amount of money to get me into their store. And yet, more often than not, when I actually do end up walking into their store I end up walking back out of the door later without all of the items I came to buy. This is a failure of customer service.

Superstores like Home Depot have so many products that the complexity of their selection becomes overwhelming. Consumer reports did a study around complexity and shopping paralysis using grocery stores and the results were fascinating. A significant number of people “felt overwhelmed by the selection and were unable to process all of the choices in order to make a purchase decision”. (link here). In other words, they were overwhelmed with complexity.

But Home Depot has an additional level of complexity that a grocery store doesn’t, and that is the simple fact that many of their customers actually don’t know what products they need to do the job they are trying to complete. When I walk into a grocery store I know I want cereal. I may be overwhelmed with the sheer number of choices, but at least I know that I want cereal. When I walk into Home Depot I frequently do not actually know the items I need to complete project x. In other words, I need someone to help me navigate through the complexity of my project as well as through the brand of products that I will need to successfully complete it.

Could intelligent robots provide better customer service? I think that they can.

Here is how I would imagine the same interaction occurring with a robot:

I walk up to the robot and speak clearly like I do with Siri saying “Do you have gloss paint?”

The robot will immediately respond with, “Yes we do. We have five different kinds ranging in price from $2.99 a gallon to $6.99 a gallon. Today we have a special on our premium brand that is normally $8.99 a gallon and for today only it is $3.99 a gallon. Would you like me to give you product or consumer reviews for each of the brands?”

Shocked I would answer, “No thank you, but can you tell me where they are located?”

“Aisle 9 halfway down on your right, would you like me to take you there?”

It might also inquire about the type of project I am doing and then offer advice and other products that might be helpful. It might pull up a helpful “how to” video and play it for me on its screen. It could also print me out a shopping list with the location, and current prices, of all the items I will need to complete my project. Better yet the robot could go and shop for my items while I sit and enjoy a cup of coffee, or while I watch a product demonstration, or whatever.

The robot scenario described above is exactly the type of consumer experience you get when you shop at your local independent hardware store, which is why I don’t understand why we don’t all shop at them most of the time (I try to). But independent stores are different. They have highly trained staff, low turnover and everyone is aligned with the needs of the customer because their jobs depend on keeping that customer happy. In comparison the “paint consultant” at my local Home Depot is one of tens of thousands of employees and does not feel that alignment. The customer experience at your local hardware store cannot be replicated across thousands of stores with low wage workers.

Until now that is.

Robots will increasingly give global chains the ability to replicate high touch, deep knowledge service across all of their stores in a standardized manner. And counter-intuitively they will also give global chains the ability to create a “customer service brand” and replicate that throughout all of their stores.

What if Home Depot created a mascot and then programmed each of their robots across all of their stores with the personality of that mascot? The Home Depot version of the cartoon character Bob the Builder! This would mean that as a consumer you would have the exact same customer experience in every Home Depot store you ever walk into.

(Recently added) But you don’t have to take my word for it. Lowes recently began testing robots in its stores in San Jose, CA. ( If the Home Depot in Marin County already had them I would have not gone home to a look of disgust and pity from my wife because my shopping list was only half bought. I would have been a hero with a full bag of tools and products!

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