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Inside Lowe's Wacky Approach to Building the Store of the Future

This is not a sci-fi novel

If you've ever felt overwhelmed when walking into a sprawling hardware store, you're not alone. To tackle the problem and better understand how people shop online and in brick-and-mortar stores, Lowe's set up an innovation lab in Los Angeles last year.

Spearheaded by executive director Kyle Nel, Lowe's Innovation Labs uses a method it calls science-fiction prototyping, which gives professional science-fiction writers data about the retailer that they then use to write stories and hypothesize about what the future of digital looks like.

The lab employs a staff of 20 in addition to the startups and organizations that the company works with. Besides the office in L.A., the retailer also has a lab in Mountain View, Calif., as part of a partnership with Singularity University.

"You need to have physical locations where you can bring these uncommon partners—the company and people—that you would never expect a Lowe's to work with to make those stories a reality and make them happen quickly," Nel says. "The way we think about is very quickly create some type of workable prototype that we put into one or two stores. If it works to expand, expand also rather quickly."

So far, Lowe's Innovation Lab has spun out two projects: the Lowe's Holoroom and self-roaming robots.

The Holoroom project launched in June in two Canadian stores, using installations and an augmented reality app to create virtual replicas of home improvement projects.

More recently, Lowe's unleashed two custom-made robots—dubbed OSHbots—in an Orchard Supply Hardware store in San Jose, Calif., late last month to enhance the in-store shopping experience.

The robots are positioned near the entrance of the store to help shoppers find specific items by talking to them. Two screens, a 3-D scanner and computer (which will eventually be used to complete e-commerce sales), are also built into the robot to track down products. Creative content on the screens changes on the fly as the bots roam around the store. Meanwhile, beacons—small devices affixed to store displays that send out targeted messages—ping the robots with ads and information specific to sections of the store.

There aren't official plans to bring robots to other stores yet, but don't be surprised if you see them zooming around your local hardware store soon. "Clearly, we're not building this to do the one store only," Nel said.

This article is part of a series this week profiling seven brands' innovation labs. Click here to read more. 

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