Confectionery takes its place at the tip of a potential robotic retail revolution

Amid all the challenging headlines of the past year, it’s something of a relief to encounter some slightly more upbeat news that greeted us with the novel confectionery innovation of a US pilot venture of a robot serving customers in a New York store.

Could Mars Wrigley’s unleashing of our space-age server known as ‘Smiley,’ advising on sweet treats possibly herald a shiny new dawn in retailing? Or is this likely to prove something of an occasional treat for store visitors in need of a digital distraction from pandemic times?

Certainly, collaborating with a robotics firm (Savioke) for the move last week seems particularly smart at the height of a pandemic when those brave enough to venture into stores are trying their best to ensure some social distancing, what better than a mechanical assistant who not only dispenses some cheery options on confectionery, but can also hand you some sanitiser as well for good measure.

One thing’s for sure, there will no doubt be plenty of follow-up market research and number crunching conducted by the American confectionery giant, as it continues to find ever more inventive ways to engage with consumers amid a competitive field that has been short on opportunities to engage with its traditional base of fans with the cancellation of the US Sweets and Snacks Expo last summer due to the covid crisis.

So, having a robot engage with customers is certainly an eye-catching piece of marketing that’s likely to stick in peoples’ minds, though whether this is viable on a mass scale across the US’s vast array of shopping malls, or potentially exported over to Europe and further afield is a hard question to judge. Given that most other aspects of our lives appear to be heading in an ever-more digitised direction, retail robots don’t really seem like the stuff of science fiction anymore.

But if the pandemic has reminded us of one key fact, it’s that we’re very much a social species that needs a level of human interaction, which has been banned for many of us over the past year in an unprecedented fashion. People tend to shop to feel good about themselves as well as getting those weekly necessities, and for the most part, they value those small in-store human interactions.  So in my view at least, it would be a sad day indeed if store assistants were permanently elbowed out by their digital counterparts, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if we were entering the steady dawn of the era of the retail ‘cobot’ sharing our store space.

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