What’s Next for Retail Automation

Retailers dealing with out-of-stock issues is nothing new — the industry has been trying to solve this problem for years. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this significantly.

Newly exposed out-of-stocks caused by the pandemic, due to surge buying emptying aisles and more consumers turning to online ordering options, have already cost grocery retailers an estimated $76 billion in lost revenue, according to IHL Group. This has created even more pressure for retailers to keep products consistently stocked on shelves. 

In an effort to solve this massive problem and address unique in-store execution issues, retailers have traditionally relied on costly dedicated labor, pulling store associates away from customer-service-focused roles and into manual data collection — that often results in untimely and inaccurate information. Retailers would also refer to historical data, which has now become useless as consumer behavior during the pandemic is unlike anything we have seen before.

Frequent and accurate shelf data is especially critical now, as it does not rely on predictions from the past. Rather, it hones in on what consumers are seeing on the shelf in real-time, supplementing inventory and sales data so retailers have a more complete picture and can take appropriate steps to rectify any in-store execution issues.

Automated solutions are necessary for optimizing retailers' operational efficiency and driving consumer purchasing decisions, while also allowing store associates to fulfill their duties faster and focus on where they are needed most — with the shoppers.

So, if humans are not the solution to shelf data collection, then what is? 

A continuous, real-time view of inventory and out-of-stocks via digitized shelves is imperative to a retailer’s success.

That is where automation technology comes in. An automated solution, whatever issue it attempts to solve, needs to be accurate, actionable, and frequent. When vendors’ data is not accurate enough, it creates additional work for store associates, prevents them from engaging with customers, and weakens retailers’ trust. Once retailers find a vendor who can provide exactly the type of data they need, they can then decide which hardware works best for their stores. 

When it comes to choosing the right type of automated solution, being hardware agnostic is essential, as each store will have different needs based on size and layout. For some, shelf or ceiling cameras may work best for data collection. For others, aisle-roaming robots may be the better fit.

Others might use a combination of both. It truly depends on the retailer, as can be seen in recent announcements from Walmart, who decided to remove aisle-roaming robots from their stores after realizing they were too obtrusive for customers. It is not a question of whether robots are a useful tool for data collection, but rather that retailers will not be able to successfully digitize if they do not have the right hardware mix for their stores.

While robots can be one of the many data-collection methods, their presence can be intimidating to shoppers, an issue that could directly impact the overall shopping experience. 

A continuous, real-time view of inventory and out-of-stocks via digitized shelves is imperative to a retailer’s success. To obtain that visibility, automated technology — such as Internet of Things-enabled shelf-edge and ceiling cameras and autonomous robots — is vital.

Automation allows retailers to meet the demands of a rapidly changing environment and increases associates’ efficiency and productivity. It also provides the accurate and credible data that retailers and brands rely on to drive incremental uplifts in on-shelf availability and store execution standards, ultimately elevating the shopper experience — both online and in-store.

Out-of-stock issues are not going anywhere, so to help combat it, retailers should consider implementing automated technology to digitize the shelf, ensuring that physical stores are relevant to shoppers in this new retail world.

Mark Cook is EVP of retail solutions at Trax. 

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