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Zara Adds Bots to Make BOPIS Better

One of Zara’s omnichannel offerings has been so successful that the fast-fashion retailer needs robots just to keep up.

Customers arriving in store to fetch items purchased online—which account for a third of global orders—typically encountered long lines as associates manually hunted down their purchases. That kind of inefficiency diminished the value and convenience that buying online, and picking up in store (BOPIS) promises. Waiting around endlessly takes much of the “instant” out of instant gratification.

Zara’s has set out to improve the experience by deploying robots to tackle the task of retrieving BOPIS orders and shuttling them to a drop box for customer pick-up, according to a Wall Street Journal article. Customers trigger the process by scanning a code upon arrival, which prompts the bot to begin its search.

The Spanish apparel giant is seeking a competitive edge over fellow fast-fashion peers—especially companies like multi-brand retailers ASOS and Zalando, which operate exclusively online, unencumbered by brick-and-mortar investments. Strategically wielding technology to improve in-store operations could help Zara, which operates 2,266 locations, to regain its footing and catch up to competitors’ double-digit growth.

Many retailers are turning their stores into mini fulfillment centers, seeking both to rationalize their real estate investments and to lure the lucrative omnichannel shopper, who’s worth 30 percent more, according to IDC data from 2015, than customers who stick to just one channel.

Though bots are becoming a more regular part of the retail conversation, Zara could be making a wise decision to keep them strictly to back-of-house tasks, at least for now. A recent experiment with a Scottish grocery store revealed that many customers actively avoided the customized Pepper robot, which was set up to “tell jokes” and “dispense hugs,” according to ZDnet. Ultimately, Pepper simply failed to provide any value, especially when customers could seek out a flesh-and-blood employee nearby.

That said, however, Boston Consulting Group estimates the global robotics market will be worth $87 billion by 2025.