Imagine walking into a store and being greeted by a 4-foot tall friendly robot that can help you with almost any general query. You might not have to imagine much longer, as 2017 is the year SoftBank Robotics' Pepper the robot might be coming to a retail location near you.

As the digitization of the physical world continues to expand, robotics, IoT and artificial intelligence are making its mark on the retail sector. While e-commerce has been the tech darling of recent years, the physical store is ripe for disruption. According to an annual 2015 PwC survey, only 27 percent of U.S. consumers say they shop online weekly. With brick and mortar stores being built even on the backs of successful e-commerce companies, there is ample incentive for retailers to create a more interactive experience for shop-goers.

Ryan Parker, Head of Responsive Retail at Intel, shared his take on retail technology with Inc, "In 2017, we'll see the responsive retail take form. We'll remove islands of technology and create a 360 approach to retail."

This 360 strategy will bring in human-likeness robots to mange low-level inquiries, use technology to empower retail staff to create relationships with consumers, and incorporate responsive technologies to better manage inventory.

Leveraging robots for real-world CRM

According to a 2016 TimeTrade retail report, 90% of shoppers cannot always find the right person to help, with a further 85% of shoppers leaving without purchasing anything when they cannot find the right person.

Enter Pepper, Softbank Robotics' solution to attracting consumers as a point of contact. Pepper has landed in the U.S. after establishing itself in the Japanese market. Nestlé has used Pepper in over 1,000 Nescafé stores in Japan to provide customers with product information as well as entertaining content. Capturing passersby's attention and providing further information, Pepper is kicking off its U.S. presence at Westfield San Francisco Centre and Oakland Airport's Pyramid Taproom.

Pepper also acts as an in-store CRM system, connecting offline consumer engagement with digital CRM tactics. Pepper is able to capture key info from consumers to create an offline to online feedback loop of engagement and data.

Empowering the people

By automating simple functions with robots, retail floor associates will have the capacity to interact with consumers on a deeper relationship-based level. This initial introduction of robots allows retail staff to handle more personal inquiries and create a dialogue with potential customers. An additional contributing factor bringing relationships back to the forefront in real-world retail is equipping staff with new tools.

One example is a partnership between JDA Software and enterprise startup Theatro to empower staff with a "heads up, hands free" wearable solution to inventory. Leveraging JDA forecasting software, Theatro's voice controlled app allows retailers--such as The Container Store--to give staff easier access to information such as product availability and floor location. JDA's Store Optimizer technology, powered by Intel's Responsive Retail Platform, provides the backend information fed to floor staff through Theatro's wearable communication system.

"Think of JDA Store Optimizer as a store manager's exceptionally adept assistant, freeing her from the process of manually determining the order and assignment of tasks," said Glen Ceniza, Group VP of product management at JDA. "By partnering with Store Optimizer, store managers can spend more time on the floor making decisions that will positively affect store performance, and less time looking at data points, manually tracking items and struggling to address management issues."

Developing the 'smart store'

The most discreet yet impactful technology enhancing the overall experience is being integrated directly into the store and backend processes.

"To continue to grow without losing the connection, the human relationship, we knew we needed to build a digital platform that would amplify the human experience," said Miguel Almeida, EVP of digital at Lululemon Athletica. "We wanted to build a digital DNA and mindset that could scale very rapidly. We wanted to evolve from a culture of 'tribal knowledge' to one of 'scientific knowledge'."

Oak Labs is reinventing the entire retail experience, creating a truly connected store. One of their first implementations can be found in the Ralph Lauren flagship store in NYC, where RFID technology communicates between clothing brought into a dressing room and the connected mirror. The mirror's screen recognizes the shopper's physical "cart" and can recommend outfit pairings, request different sizes and colors from a store associate and even save preferred items by texting their picks to a mobile device.

"Everything we build has to be human," said Healy Cypher, CEO and Co-founder of Oak Labs. Cypher described his vision as "trying to re-humanize, not de-humanize" at PSFK's event where they brought their The Future of Retail 2017 report to life.

As robots with human-like gestures, voice automation and data gatherers enter the consumer conscious, more solutions for low-level cognitive interactions will pop up as the first point of contact with shoppers. The smarter store, retail associate and overall retailer will be better equipped to serve clients in the store of the future. With these new technology practices rolling out to a retailer near you, 2017 will be the year that the terms "brick and mortar" and "digital innovation" become synonymous.