Price Check on Aisle 3: Retailers Turn to Robots to Manage Inventory

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is actually able to do that better, faster, and cheaper.”

Deploying robots to do the mundane, if important, work of tracking stock frees up store employees to focus on customer service and other more commercially meaningful interactions with shoppers.

In addition to freeing up personnel, better inventory management could boost online sales. Bossa Nova’s Skaff says most websites currently underplay how many of a product a store has online because they don’t have accurate counts. “So, if they have two pieces, they may say, ‘We are out of stock.’ But if the robot says they have two pieces, they can feel more confident to say, ‘We have two.’ The last thing [retailers] want is someone to buy something online and the customer comes to the store and finds it out of stock.”

While the use of robotics has been fairly common in warehousing operations, like those run by Amazon, introducing them into stores and co-mingling them with customers is fairly new.

Simbe’s robot came out of work done by Willow Garage, a Silicon Valley robotics lab that created a robotic operating system, or ROS. Mirza Shah, who co-founded Simbe with Bogolea in 2014, was part of Willow.

Bogolea wouldn’t say how much Simbe has raised in outside capital, but the startup did receive significant support from SoftBank Robotics America, the North American subsidiary of Japan’s SoftBank Robotics. The companies announced a partnership that would expand deployments of the Tally robot in North America, Europe, and Japan over the next few years.

SoftBank has developed its own robots, including the humanoid Pepper. The company says about 20,000 of them are already “working” in stores and nursing homes, mostly in Japan. “We had complementary solutions,” Bogolea says. “This was a great opportunity to accelerate our growth.”

For its part, Bossa Nova raised $17.5 million in Series B funding last fall in a financing round led by Paxion, which included participation from Intel Capital, WRV Capital, Lucas Venture Group, and Cota Capital. In total, Bossa Nova, which was founded in 2005, has raised $41.7 million. “The engineering team is looking at very deliberately and robustly scaling all processes: building the robots, capabilities to analyze the images, managing the fleet and servicing them in the stores,” Skaff says.

Originally, Bossa Nova was making and selling Penbo, a toy robot resembling a brightly colored penguin that could waddle, dance, and interact with humans. That introduced Skaff and his team to retail’s inventory problem.

“By starting with the toy business, we had to learn about the retail industry from the supplier side,” Skaff says. “We could see how difficult it was to get products on the shelf.”

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