Pepper, a humanoid robot by SoftBank Robotics, serves as a day-to-day companion for humans. A year ago, Independent Retailer interviewed Steve Carlin, vice president and general manager of SoftBank. Through our interview, we learned “Pepper was developed specifically to interact with humans.” Steve explained, “Pepper can move and turn to address the person it is interacting with. It has big, expressive eyes that give the appearance of blinking when it is thinking or talking to you. Pepper has arms, hands, and fingers that gesticulate because humans communicate with our arms and hands. By mimicking how we communicate, it creates a sort of empathy, which makes the engagement more personal. Pepper’s human-like form factor and features are what really separates it from other pieces of technology that can interact with you, for example, your phone.”
Pepper is the first humanoid robot that can recognize human emotions and adapt its behavior in response. Steve told us “The most important features of Pepper for our current partners is its ability to attract and engage with customers who otherwise might not have stopped and shopped in their store. In the recent U.S. pilot programs, our partners have confirmed increased foot traffic, customer engagement, and ultimately, sales while Pepper was implemented in their locations.” The novelty of Pepper can lure shoppers in while its advanced programming helps engage customers and deliver on-brand messaging while collecting real-time data.
Fabio, the Not-So-Suave Robot
What could go wrong? Well, earlier this year Pepper attracted negative press after it was fired from a Scottish supermarket. The Pepper robot, named Fabio, was unfortunately not too suave with customers. Fabio was supposed to help shoppers find items, provide pricing information, inform customers of different sales and specials, and generally be helpful the way any good store associate would.
However, Fabio was not as helpful as the storeowners hoped. When asked about specific items, such as “Where is the milk?” Fabio would reply, “in the fridge section,” without being able to explain in further detail. As with most Pepper robots, Fabio was also programmed to have a sense of humor. Fabio would greet customers with “Hello gorgeous!” offer high-fives, and sometimes even hugs. Though meant to be charming, Fabio’s greetings made customers feel uncomfortable. After providing an unhelpful answer to a question on where steaks are located, Fabio asked the joke: “What’s it called when one cow spies on another cow?” Fabio’s punch line was “a steak out.”
Fabio’s true demise was in his product sample offering performance. His awkward communication skills and lack of boundaries resulted in most shoppers actively avoiding Fabio. A human associate successfully offered significantly more samples than Fabio during the same time period. For his employers, this was the last straw. Fabio was dismissed from his store associate position after just one week on the job. Pepper is designed to be friendly, approachable, and lure in curious shoppers. But in the case of Fabio, he did the exact opposite.
However, Fabio is one Pepper robot out of over 10,000, currently used in retail settings worldwide. Pepper has been a friendly face for Nestle® in Japan since 2014. Earlier this year, Sprint® brought Pepper into their stores. California apparel retailers, Las Vegas hotels, and Pizza Hut® also successfully employ Pepper robots. It seems that Fabio’s failure is the exception rather than the norm. Some retailers reported as much as a 70 percent increase in foot traffic after bringing a Pepper robot into their stores.
But, Pepper’s curb appeal can’t last forever. Once the novelty wears off, Pepper’s in-store performance will matter more than ever. Earlier this year, SoftBank announced new chatbox capabilities for Pepper. “Progressing Pepper’s functionality has been the number one priority for SoftBank Robotics US and the new chatbot integration feature for Pepper is our answer to tackling the conversation experience, a key part of Pepper’s evolution as a true business solution,” Steve Carlin explained to Vator Inc. This chatbox feature seems like it will solve some of Fabio’s performance issues.
The chatbox feature functions similar to the way Siri or Alexa operate. Pepper will offer real-time information and answers to shoppers’ questions. This cloud-based feature also makes Pepper dynamic, able to update and learn new information in real-time as retail businesses changes. Unlike Siri or Alexa, Pepper can combine its emotional intelligence with the chat box capabilities, to have a more realistic conversation with humans.
Is Fabio Your Future Robot Roommate?
Last year, Steve told us “The long-term vision of our CEO, Masayoshi Son, is to have a robot in every home.” Consumer-facing robots are catching on rather quickly in the retail industry. Yusuke Abe, a PR representative from SoftBank told Independent Retailer that the first step towards fully integrating humanoid robotics into everyday life is placing Peppers throughout the business sector. Once people are comfortable interacting with Pepper in customer service environments, then the humanoid robot will spread into households. Is robot ubiquity closer than we think? Since this time last year, Pepper has made its way into thousands more stores, and thousands more hearts.