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Robots greet Westfield mall shoppers in San Francisco, San Jose

Robots have invaded two Bay Area shopping malls just in time for the holidays. But they’re friendly robots programmed to dance, play games, take selfies and teach six languages.

Article by Benny Evangelista

No, the human-like robots — all named Pepper — won’t be replacing flesh-and-blood sales clerks any time soon. But the Westfield shopping center chain is using its San Francisco Centre and Valley Fair malls to test whether the robots can make shopping more enjoyable.

In fact, Pepper, created by the robotics arm of Japanese conglomerate SoftBank, will conduct brief surveys about whether shoppers are having a good or bad experience.

“Pepper is kind of a unique way of getting some of that information,” said Steve Carlin, vice president and general manager for SoftBank Robotics America.

Widely incorporated into industrial and manufacturing plants, robots are making their way into retail settings to interact with customers. The Lowe’s home improvement chain, for example, is using its LoweBot customer service robot in Bay Area outlets. Suitable Technologies of Palo Alto has abandoned the idea of having human clerks on site altogether; instead the 2-year-old store, which sells robots that display a human face on their monitor, is staffed remotely by clerks whose faces appear on their robots’ screens.

Westfield is leasing three Peppers for its downtown San Francisco Centre and two more for its Valley Fair mall in San Jose.

”Welcome to Westfield,” one Pepper said in an electronic robot voice as shoppers walked under the San Francisco mall’s historic dome.

Shawn Pauli, senior vice president of Westfield Property Group, said that if the test proves to be a success, he wants to use permanent Peppers in the World Trade Center mall in New York City and the Garden State Plaza in Paramus, N.J.

SoftBank introduced Pepper in 2014 in Japan, and has been utilizing the robots as brand ambassadors in hotels and retailers in that country and in Europe, as well as on the Costa cruise ship line. But this is Pepper’s first major long-term engagement in North America, Carlin said.

Pepper looks somewhat like a love child between C-3PO from “Star Wars” and cartoon star Casper the Friendly Ghost. The all-white, 4-foot tall robot has a round head and child-like electronic eyes, with arms that gesture as its speaks.

On its chest is a tablet-size video screen that displays a menu of options, such as a card-matching game, how to say hello in six languages and that customer service survey. By later this week, Pepper will be programmed to show customers how to find individual stores.

“It’s approachable, not intimidating, with a humanoid face but not too human, engaging but not off-putting,” Carlin said.

Benny Evangelista is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @ChronicleBenny

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