The robots have arrived at a Best Buy store in New York City — or, to be precise, one robot named "Chloe."
The electronics retailer this past week began testing a 350-square-foot vending machine on steroids. Inside its glass walls, a robotic yellow arm, which the company named Chloe, retrieves merchandise that customers order from touch screens.
In just a half-minute, Chloe can scoot around and pick out a customer's request from rows of about 15,000 DVDs, CDs, video games and even some tech accessories, such as Beats headphones and chargers. Customers at that store in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood can make a purchase without ever having to interact with a person.
The souped-up kiosk has nine touch screens, including a couple that are accessible from the entryway to the store when the store is closed. This way customers can use Chloe to buy items if they have a movie emergency — or need a cellphone charger — in the middle of the night.
"It also allows a store to free up some of its labor," said Jeff Haydock, a Best Buy spokesman. So blue-shirted employees can focus more on customers with more complex needs than trying to find a Blu-ray Disc.
A small team at Best Buy Company headquarters in Richfield has been developing this machine over the past couple of years and has a patent for it. The same team created and rolled out more than 200 self-serve vending machines in high-traffic locations such as airports. Called Best Buy Express, those machines sell iPods, cellphone chargers and other products.
Best Buy's Chloe is one of the latest examples of ways retailers have begun dabbling with robots to supplement or replace store workers.
Amazon.com Inc. has deployed thousands of robots called Kiva in its warehouses that drive forklifts and fetch items. Home improvement retailer Lowe's Companies. recently began testing two personal assistant robots at a store in California that greet customers, respond to their questions in English or Spanish and guide customers to the items they seek.
And earlier this month, a Target Corp. executive told employees at an annual meeting that it will roll out a new "concept store" in 2017 that will include some sort of robotic component.
The rising interest in robotics comes as retailers feel competitive and sometimes legal pressure to raise the minimum wage of their employees, said David Marcotte, a senior vice president with consulting firm Kantar Retail.
"Everybody is beginning to talk about robotics as a way to remove labor from the system," he said. "I'm hearing this from a lot of retailers … they have changes in their labor costs to deal with and that's just a reality."
And then, there is the wow factor that robots bring. While many of these robots are not the R2-D2 types that people are more familiar with from the movies, there is still an intrigue about these more industrial sort of robots, Marcotte said.
"Americans find robots enormously entertaining," he said. "And there's no emotional judging."
Some surveys have showed that people would rather interact with robots than with a person. So at the Best Buy store in Chelsea, customers who may be embarrassed about buying movies such as "Titanic" or "Starship Troopers" don't have to worry about getting snickers or snarky smiles from cashiers.
Best Buy's Chloe will also take some of the work out of stocking inventory by automatically sorting the items after employees insert them into the machine.
In recent years, Best Buy has been shrinking its store space dedicated to physical media as consumers increasingly get their music and entertainment through digital avenues such as iTunes and Netflix. At the Chelsea store, customers are still able to pick up some video games and new DVDs and CDs in the store, but the vast majority of its catalog has been moved behind the glass wall where Chloe operates.
Entertainment still accounts for about 9 percent of Best Buy's sales, but it has been on a downward spiral.
"Right now, this is a one-store test," Haydock said of Chloe. "We're looking to see how things go and see what we can learn from it."
Best Buy decided to test Chloe at the Chelsea store in part because it gets a lot of foot traffic.
"Something like this may not work in St. Cloud the way it does in Chelsea," he said.
While some New Yorkers accustomed to sensory overload have walked right past it, others have been more curious about it and have stopped to check it out and make some purchases.
The store manager, Haydock added, is already thinking of new things to add to it that local residents often stop by for such as wireless routers. And since this store gets a lot of tourists, he thinks selfie sticks could also be a good addition.
Kavita Kumar • 612-673-4113