Robots will prove an essential ingredient for many a retailer that plans to stay competitive in the age of e-commerce. That was one of several recommendations from Isenberg students Jenny Quan (management and psychology) and Jessica Morrison (management) in their senior honors thesis, “Robots in Retail.” In May, the student duo and five other Isenberg student teams presented their thesis topics, arguments, and recommendations in Anurag Sharma’s capstone, Honors Thesis Seminar. In the annual course, Sharma—an associate professor of management—encourages students to integrate the humanities and social sciences with business issues and research.
Other teams tackled innovation in esports, Facebook’s deployment of cookies, humanitarian organizations’ adoption of innovative technologies, UMass Amherst’s campus-wide sustainability initiative, and tech startups’ strategies for building sales organizations that keep pace with rapid growth.
According to Jenny and Jessica, robots in the retail industry have a growing footprint in customer service, shelf checking, inventory picking, cleaning floors and other surfaces, and collecting items for employees and shoppers—both in-store and online. The thesis profiled Walmart’s success with robots and Best Buy’s caution in embracing them. It also evaluated robot pros and cons. More accurate inventory reporting, “remembering” customer preferences, improved store cleanliness, and fewer shopping cart accidents all came up positive.
On the downside, startup costs for introducing a robot can prove significant, in the neighborhood of $14,000. The students illustrated snags in a hotel in Japan (the world’s robot capital), which had invested in 243 robots. They frequently annoyed guests, malfunctioned, and required human intervention. Robot room assistants, moreover, occasionally detected commands that turned out to be human snoring.
By necessity, many human occupations will adapt to robotization, the students predicted. And in a changing retail work environment, robots might even catalyze new jobs for the humans who will supervise and interact with them. Both women will be in good positions to see how their predictions play out in their post-graduation jobs: Jenny will be working as an executive team leader for Target starting in June, and Jessica will be working as an allocation analyst for TJX Companies starting in August.