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John Ryan

Robots Instead of Biohazard Suits

New thinking about dealing with the COVID threat while keeping the business of physical shopping engaging are beginning to emerge.

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AT THE RISK of writing endlessly about the effects of COVID-19 on retail and retailers, the newly made-over Itsu outpost on London’s Great Portland Street is an example of how things are becoming rather more nuanced as far as keeping us all bio-secure is concerned.

Itsu is a 77-store-strong chain that serves, predominantly, sushi-to-go (and, to an extent, to eat in) and its new store looks a little different from others to date. We have all become accustomed to stickers on the floor showing us where to stand and how to keep a suitable distance from other shoppers, but what we are probably unaccustomed to in a sushi outpost is the place of a chef being taken by a robot.

The obvious initial objection to this is that a fair portion of the business of buying a bento box is the theater involved in the production of some of its elements. Take this away and you might as well put everything into a cold case and be done with it. This is where the robots come in. Imported from Japan, these brightly adorned machines boast Japanese characters across their surfaces that click and whirr to produce perfectly formed sashimi and such.

And as if watching these weren’t enough, there is also the fact that this is an almost entirely digital enterprise. When it comes time to order, the customer faces a hot pink (one of Itsu’s signature colors) screen and makes a selection. This, of course, means less time interacting with a human being and less chance of contamination. The same is true of the fact that the usual coolers are absent in the store’s customer-facing area as this would increase the amount of product handling prior to a purchase being made.

In total then, this is an experience in which the person-to-person element has been drastically reduced, and while in certain circumstances this might appear to lead to sterility and a feeling of isolation, enough thought has been given to ensure that a different form of theater is apparent. COVID-19 has certainly made most outfits don their thinking caps about what physical retail actually means and oddly, this doesn’t just have to mean people wandering around in biohazard suits.

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John Ryan is a journalist covering the retail sector, a role he has fulfilled for more than a decade. As well as being the European Editor of VMSD magazine, he writes for a broad range of publications in the U.K., the U.S. and Germany with a focus on in-store marketing, display and layout, as well as the business of store architecture and design. In a previous life, he was a buyer for C&A, based in London and then Düsseldorf, Germany. He lives and works in London.

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