Robots in Retail : Yes, please!

Articles | By MetraLabs | 14 December 2016
Complete automation: Stores and warehouses can be thoroughly scanned in just a few hours (overnight or during the day) – it is possible to scan 500 to 1500 square meters per hour. Complete automation: Stores and warehouses can be thoroughly scanned in just a few hours (overnight or during the day) – it is possible to scan 500 to 1500 square meters per hour. Photo: MetraLabs

An RFID robot that carries out automatic inventory, and directs customers to products? Sounds unusual! “Not at all,” says Dr. Johannes Trabert of MetraLabs, because the retail benefits are obvious: inventory is carried out swiftly and accurately, and costs are saved. When goods are out-of-stock, it is possible to detect this early. In the same way, goods which are in the incorrect place in the store can also be identified. And all of this happens completely automatically, without the need for valuable manpower. The employees in the store will have more time for the customer, for giving advice and selling. Soon, autonomous “shopping assistants” will be part of the everyday life of a store ...

Dr. Johannes Trabert, Co-Founder and Executive Partner, MetraLabs, in an interview with ‘RFID im Blick Global’

The first international retailer to introduce the “TORY” automated inventory system was Adler fashion stores. The inventory robot has been in operation in one of their stores since December 2015. This was preceded by extensive user testing. Testing and installation were carried out together with Catalyst (Li & Fung), Tailorit, Syspro, and EECC. All the requirements for effective dayto- day operations have been met, explains Trabert: “The reading quality was very good, at 99 percent.

Even difficult reads such as T-shirts with, for example, a tag directly on a metal shelf, could be solved by incremental reading (daily scanning), and it is possible to achieve almost a 100 percent detection rate after a few days. Testing also verified the suitability for high shelves (3 metres), densely packed goods, and it demonstrated how ‘TORY’ adapts to changes in the environment (such as moving shelves and tables, or changing the store layout). The system even detected goods that had already been “lost” (written off).

RFID and robots in retail? Is this unusual?

No, not at all! Between 2004 and 2007, we developed the world‘s first interactive shopping robot, named ‘Toomas’. In 2009, the first mobile robot was equipped with UHF RFID , and it has been tested as part of a research project in a retail store. Meanwhile, more than 200 of our autonomous mobile robots are employed worldwide – with more than 60,000 kilometers of ‘driving’ experience! Our “TOR Y” RFID inventory robot successfully passed user tests at six retailers in the UK, France, Belgium, and Germany, and provided evidence on practicality and effectiveness. All expectations of retail chains are fully met, and this is confirmed by our customers. In 2015, the market opening in Germany with its introduction at Adler fashion stores was a significant milestone. In 2016 we plan to bring at least 30 more robots to the shop floor of the fashion sector.

And what‘s the catch? What needs attention, and what is not working yet?

... TORY does not have an integrated vacuum cleaner yet. But we are working on it! ... The operating environment should be suitable for robots (wheelchair accessible) and free of possible obstacles. The current-generation TORY needs a gangway with a width of at least 70cm, or even a little more. While the robot can dodge obstacles, such as boxes in gangways, the reading rate may suffer in these areas. For safety reasons it must be clarified whether the robot can operate alone at night. The technology itself is robust and mature, but in 2016 we are still refining details to optimise inventory and the driving performance. The aim is for the robot to fully adapt its autonomous driving on unknown surfaces and automatically adjust to the repositioning of seasonal goods. Our further goal is accurate tag positioning to within a few tens of centimetres!

How do robots change retail processes?

Autonomous inventory robots are the next logical step in retail and logistics and are ready for widespread use. They perform inventories at night, and during the day they are used as shop assistants. Robots are for customer interaction in retail. They help to combine design and technology, employing interaction techniques. Today‘s retail processes look like this: the sales staff spends 30 percent of the time giving advice and 80 percent of customers have questions about the location and the price of products.

In the future, pilot or search robots could take over these tasks, giving customers information about products and product locations, and guiding them there. This not only extends the sharing of information, but this “new” feature improves the shopping experience. Possible daytime use, for example, is shown through our interactive pilot robots in Conrad Electronic stores in Regensburg, Stuttgart, Essen, and Hamburg. Retail experience show that 92 percent of customers use the service, and 75 percent of customers rate the robot as a sustainable service feature.


  • Complete automation
    Stores and warehouses can be thoroughly scanned in just a few hours (overnight or during the day) – it is possible to scan 500 to 1500 square meters per hour
  • Inventory
    The inventory is about 10 times faster than manual identification: depending on the tag population, the detection speed varies from 20,000 to 100,000 tags per hour.
  • ≥ 99 per cent detection rate
    Reading performance is always comparable or superior to manual reading: the tags are scanned from different angles to achieve a high detection rate
  • Precise positioning
    Positioning of individual products to an accuracy of a metre; additional information on the whereabouts of tagged goods


  • Out-of-Stock Prevention
    A precise overview of inventory and shortages; optimised replenishment and therefore reduced lost sales.
  • Faster response time for associated supply chains
    Better inventory dynamics; avoiding waste leads to “Lean Retail”, minimal inventory allows concepts like “warehouse-instore” and “warehouse-as-store”.
  • Efficiency gain
    Enables a shift from an on-demand to regular inventory without any additional administration, time, or costs (e.g. having manually- triggered additional inventory between regularly planned ones)
  • Cost optimisation
    Decreased staff costs and staff gaining more time for customer contact. Consequent benefits for revenue and profit.

This interview was published in the July 2016 Issue of "RFID im Blick Global". Download your own digital copy and keep on reading on page 34. Take a look at our subscription offer to get the latest "RFID in the Blick Global" automatically in your e-mail account or letter box immediately after publication.

Last modified on Wednesday, 14 December 2016 10:42