Not so long ago, before the rise of the mega-hardware chains, you could walk into your local home improvement store and find a helpful employee who knew exactly what you needed and where to find it on the shelves. We’ve now reached a point in customer service where Lowe’s has chosen to create a robot to replicate this experience.
In the above video, Lowe’s shows off its OshBot, a customer service robot that is going to be tested at the Lowe’s-owned Orchard Supply Hardware store in San Jose, CA, (because heaven forbid anyone outside of Silicon Valley got the chance to try anything cool).
The OshBot can greet customers at the door, ask them what they need help with and use its 3-D camera to view pieces of hardware to identify them and direct the customer to where they could be found within the store.
This is exactly the type of experience I grew up with going with my mom to local hardware stores. Tell them you need to patch a hole in the wall, and an employee would ask you pertinent questions and walk you around to each of the various items you’d need.
And there are still plenty of people offering this level of service at both smaller and incredibly large hardware stores, but many consumers I know often assume — because of previous bad customer service experiences — that they won’t find someone who is both helpful and knowledgable. So perhaps Lowe’s decision to try out a robot says just as much about what consumers have come to expect from dealing with humans as it does about the stores themselves?
“What our sales associates are amazing at doing and what they love spending time on are consulting and helping customers with their projects and solving their problems,” explains Kyle Nel, executive director of Lowe’s Innovation Labs, and owner of a head of incredibly intriguing hair. “We can let the robots answer questions like, ‘where are the hammers?'”
One thing the Lowe’s robot offers that stores often can’t is a multilingual interface. That’s incredibly important to many hardware stores, especially in markets where a large part of the local construction labor force is made up of recent immigrants for whom English is not their first language.
For now, Lowe’s is just in the testing phase of OshBot, without any specific timeline for expanding the test or rolling out a fleet of robots anytime in the near future.
“The big unknown is the human component,” says Nel. “We have the technology that works really well. But there’s some basic questions that there’s just no way to answer until you actually view it.”