Hirota chain adopts autonomous robots in its supermarkets

Retired secretary Vera Parise, 68, had no idea that one day she would be part of a real scene from The Jetsonss. The 1960s animated series showed what the future of humanity would look like with so many technological innovations, from flying cars to suspended cities and robots doing household chores. But on the 20th, she came face to face with a robot while shopping at the supermarket chain store. Hirota in Vila Monumento, South Zone of Sao Paulo. Talkative, the equipment soon started a conversation: it greeted her, asked her name and was willing to help her find the products in the store. “I think this technological evolution is barbaric, sensational”, said the retired woman.

Vera’s reaction is exactly what retailers are looking for when investing in robots and in other technological innovations, such as, for example, payment by facial recognition and self-checkout – cashiers in which the customer registers purchases and pays, without the need to interact with any employee.

With fierce competition and the advancement of online commerce, medium-sized supermarkets are betting on innovation to create new shopping experiences in the physical store and build customer loyalty. In the case of the Hirota network, it has been a month since the company began evaluating the use of autonomous robots. The plan, according to director Hélio Freddi, is to keep two pieces of equipment in the Vila Monumento store, which is the company’s headquarters and works as a kind of laboratory. In the other 17 stores in the chain, the idea is to have at least one unit.

Named Shyko (Chico in Japanese), the robot will have both customer service and operation functions. Marcio Akamine, the network’s Information Technology manager, says that, in addition to helping customers find products in the store, he will capture customer data on his dashboard for later sending out offers. Shyko will also control the availability of products on the shelves – sending online messages for replacement – and check price tags that are in the system, especially at this time of high inflation, in which value changes are constant.

The investment in the equipment is small: R$ 60 thousand, in the case of acquisition, and R$ 6 thousand monthly, if it is rented from the startup that invented the robot, Human Robotics.

the robot’s father

Founded in 2018 by French engineer Olivier Smadja, in Curitiba (PR), the robotics and artificial intelligence company’s initial plan was to develop an autonomous robot to care for elderly people indoors. “But at the time, there was no technology ready for that,” says Smadja. Today, however, the project for using robots as caregivers has been taken up again and expanded to other sectors, especially retail.

In addition to Hirota, Smadja says that two other medium-sized supermarket chains – one in the interior of São Paulo and the other in the Paraná – evaluate the use of autonomous robots in their stores.

Other initiatives

It’s been a month since St. Marche, another medium-sized chain, with 26 stores in São Paulo and aimed at high-income customers, implemented payment technology through facial recognition.

The project, which is in operation in five stores on an experimental basis, was developed in partnership with MasterCard and involves the use of an application that must be downloaded on the cell phone to register the cardholder’s face and payment methods. In seven stores, the chain has also implemented self-checkout boxes.

According to Bernardo Ouro Preto, president of St. Marche, the intention with the implementation of these features is to improve the shopping experience for consumers. Another favorable point highlighted by the executive in the adoption of these payment technologies is the issue of security, as it inhibits fraud attempts and reduces the risk of shoplifting.

loyalty

For retail consultant Marco Quintarelli, a partner at AZO Negócios, all midsize retail initiatives to invest in technological innovations in physical stores have the right address: to build customer loyalty and reduce friction at the time of purchase.

The consultant observes that the main points of attrition occur when the customer does not find the product he is looking for and when it goes to the checkout. “It hurts more for the consumer to stand in a line at the cashier when paying the bill”, he says.

In addition to the fierce competition between retail chains, Quintarelli notes that the advance of e-commerce that took place during the pandemic accelerated the digital transformation of physical logic. This is where the more intensive use of technology comes in. “The physical store has to create other attributes, other instruments that generate interest for the consumer to leave the house and go to the store.”

What is noticeable is that medium-sized networks have been faster to implement technological changes in the relationship with the consumer compared to giants in the sector. Two factors explain, in the consultant’s opinion, the pioneering spirit of mid-sized retailers. One is the cheapening of technology, which has given these networks access to new features. Another factor is that, in medium-sized companies, decisions are more immediate. “The owner of a chain of 20 stores decides what to do and invests, while in a multinational the changes depend on other instances.”