Humanoid robots are more often associated with science-fiction films and TV shows as they attempt to take over the world.
But for French electricals specialist Darty, the use of such technology has flipped that ideology on its head and helped make it and its robots a takeover target.
The UK-listed business, which is the market leader in its homeland, is at the centre of a tussle between rivals Fnac and Conforama as they bid to consolidate the congested sector – and the pricking of those ears would have been prompted by the strides Darty has made in creating a unique and interactive store experience through its use of technology.
The impact of that drive was reflected in its latest trading update. Despite recording a drop off in footfall during the quarter ending January 31, Darty’s like-for-like sales increased 4.4% as the growth of click-and-collect and the implementation of various in-store initiatives combined to improve conversion rates.
“Seamless is useless … consumers don’t want the same thing in store as they have on the web”
Regis Schultz, Darty
Although he is leading the way in France when it comes to building a multichannel electricals business, Darty’s boss Regis Schultz tells Retail Week that online and offline must remain unique.
“Seamless is useless,” he insists. “Having the same prices, the same products, that’s OK. But consumers don’t want the same thing in store as they have on the web.”
That mantra has underpinned the ingenuity across Darty’s estate in its domestic market.
Schultz takes pride in highlighting a number of schemes it is piloting to boost customer interaction and ensure shoppers are well-informed about its product mix, with electronic price tags and humanoid robots spearheading that aim.
“You have to make the store feel better than the web,” Schultz says. “One of the key things for the consumer about online shopping is comparison of price and information about the product – that’s much better on the web than it is in store.
“We are testing electronic labels, where you put your smartphone in front of the label and all the rich content comes to you – all the things you will find on the web. You get a video and a price comparison.”
“We are testing electronic labels, where you put your smartphone in front of the label and all the rich content comes to you”
Regis Schultz, Darty
If successful, Schultz ultimately aims to start rolling out that technology to all 223 of its stores and 59 franchises in France from the summer. There is also scope to launch them in its two overseas markets, Belgium and the Netherlands.
While that technology has the potential to be introduced within hundreds of stores, Darty’s humanoid robots provide a less cost-effective method of enhancing the store experience.
The retailer currently has four of the machines, which it uses to “present products” within its busier shopping centre locations.
“It’s not about staff replacement – the robots are not able to replace staff – but they are able to promote products,” Schultz explains.
“Brands like Samsung sometimes pay people in store to demonstrate their product. We said: ‘We could have a different, more modern way to do that.’ So they are really there to demonstrate and explain the product.
“It moves, it comes to you and it makes a big difference compared with a video because it’s far more interactive in creating contact with the consumer”
Regis Schultz, Darty
“They are limited in what they can say, but the interaction is quite good. The voice is not very good, but the quality of the body language is. It moves, it comes to you and it makes a big difference compared with a video because it’s far more interactive in creating contact with the consumer.”
Darty charges suppliers to use the humanoid robots to promote its products. Even so, Schultz admits “the economic model is not working” at the moment because they are expensive to run.
While he stops short of revealing how much the robots cost, Schultz explains that two members of staff are required to operate each one and ensure it is not being misused or damaged by customers.
Beyond its stores, Darty has continued its innovation with the launch of Le Bouton – a physical button located within a customer’s home or stored as an app on their smartphone, which provides access to the retailer’s customer service experts 24/7.
At the end of February, Darty added a video “experiment” to the scheme.
It allows the retailer’s experts to access the smartphones of Le Bouton’s 500,000 customers, should they give them permission to do so.
The customer can then film the faulty appliance using their smartphone camera and the video will be relayed directly to Darty’s customer service teams, allowing them to better diagnose the issue.
Schultz says the retailer’s experts can either provide customers with information to fix the appliance themselves, or gain a better understanding of the tools needed to correct the problem, should a home visit be required.
Schultz thinks the technology will help Darty save costs by removing the “pain” associated with sending a repairman to consumers’ homes – something that costs the business €60 to €70 per visit.
“At the moment our ability to resolve problems on our first visit is around 90% but we recognise that we should be able to get to 98% or 99% with Le Bouton,” Schultz predicts.
“What is painful and costly is to come to your home twice to fix something. With the video, we can give a much better initial diagnostic in terms of what’s happened to your washing machine and maybe even give you the ability to fix it yourself.”
Whether Darty ends up under the ownership of Fnac or Conforama, its technological nous could help either retailer fix any multichannel problems of its own.