TOKYO Nestle SA will enlist a thousand humanoid robots to help sell its coffee makers at electronics stores across Japan, becoming the first corporate customer for the chatty, bug-eyed androids unveiled in June by tech conglomerate SoftBank Corp.
Nestle has maintained healthy growth in Japan while many of its big markets are slowing, crediting a tradition of trying out off-beat marketing tactics in what is a small but profitable territory for the world's biggest food group.
The waist-high robot, developed by a French company and manufactured in Taiwan, was touted by Japan's SoftBank as capable of learning and expressing human emotions, and of serving as a companion or guide in a country that faces chronic labor shortages.
Nestle said on Wednesday it would initially commission 20 of the robots, called Pepper, in December to interact with customers and promote its coffee machines. By the end of next year, the maker of Nescafe coffee and KitKat chocolate bars plans to have the robots working at 1,000 stores.
"We hope this new type of made-in-Japan customer service will take off around the world," Nestle Japan President Kohzoh Takaoka said in a statement.
Nestle did not say how much it was paying for Pepper, which SoftBank has said would retail for 198,000 yen ($1,830). The robot is already greeting customers at more than 70 SoftBank mobile phone stores in Japan.
Among Nestle's most successful Japan-only initiatives is the Nescafe Ambassador system, in which individuals stock coffee pods and collect money for them at their offices in exchange for free use of machines and other perks. Nestle wants half a million "ambassadors" by 2020 - nearly quadruple the number now - as it expands into museums, beauty salons and even temples.
The Japanese unit has also developed hundreds of KitKat flavors including wasabi and green tea, and this year rolled out a KitKat that can be baked into cookies.
(Editing by Edmund Klamann)