The pandemic lit a fire under retailers to expand the use of robotics, but COVID-19 is not the only accelerant. Advancements in AI, computer vision and sensing systems are also boosting bots.
The age of COVID-19 put a premium on processes that protect customers and associates. These include contactless protocols, cleanliness in stores, sanitized warehouses, and social distancing.
In response, many retailers have turned to robotics to provide autonomous services that deliver these functions.
Both Sam’s Club and Schnucks, for example, recently began expanding their robotic fleet by adding autonomous floor scrubbers to make stores safer environments.
In another pandemic-related development, Kroger, which has been deluged with online orders, has begun a massive plan to build 20 automated warehouses across the country. Each facility will deploy dozens of bots that will help the grocer increase scale to accommodate its booming online business.
Other retailers operating or currently building bot-filled warehouses include Amazon, Walmart, The Gap, American Eagle, and Chewy.com.
Everyone Hates Empty Shelves
Shoppers visit grocery stores with a mission to hunt down, buy and take home everything on their list. So, they are disappointed when a favorite brand of salad dressing or cereal is not on the shelf.
Grocers also hate an empty shelf because it means they are losing sales. According to Ben Forgan in the Harvard Business Review, robots are an effective method retailers are using to help solve the out-of-stock problem.
“Robots free up workers from routine tasks,” says Forgan, “but that’s only the beginning. The real benefit is for robots to capture more granular data about the products on the shelves and customer buying patterns, which can increase efficiency and accuracy in inventory management.”
Woodman’s Markets, for example has begun using six-foot tall robots by Badger that use computer vision cameras to check for empty shelves, misplaced products, and incorrect pricing. Not surprisingly, one question many retailers have is: How accurate is the data collected by the robots?
According to Tyler Davis, IT project director at Woodman’s, the bots can correctly scan a shelf and differentiate between boxes of nearly identical products. In one example, the bot correctly differentiated between cinnamon flavored and low-fat graham crackers even though the only difference was a tiny banner.
“Otherwise, they were identical – same dimensions, brand, logo,” says Davis. “The robot spotted that and figured it out.”
Armed with this kind of shelf-level data, Woodman’s is able to find actionable insights that raise important questions. “Which items haven’t sold in a while?” notes Davis. “These items need to be reviewed. Or are there are any bad tags on the shelves? Does the UPC match the product? Is a product not selling in one store but maybe selling in high volumes in others?”
By responding to these questions, Woodman’s can make smarter decisions and increase store productivity.
Bots Are booming
Here is a look at other recent robotic deployments in retail:
- Wakefern Food Corp., operator of Shoprite grocery stores, announced it will deploy “Smiley,” a robot by Savioke, which will be used to display and deliver Mars Wrigley products normally found at checkout. The pilot deployment will be in a store in Monroe, New York.
- Ahold Delhaize USA has partnered with Ava Robotics to launch an automated cleaning solution that uses UV rays to disinfect both air and surfaces at two distribution centers. The robots can disinfect 9,000 square feet per hour with 99% effectiveness against COVID-19.
- Carrefour franchisee stores in the Middle East, Africa and Asia have expanded use of Simbe Robotics “Tally” shelf-scanning robots in 12 locations to support stock management and inventory control.
- Last fall, Sam’s Club ordered 372 autonomous floor scrubbers manufactured by Tennant Company in partnership with Brain Corp. to expand the program beyond the small number originally ordered. The long-term plan is to deploy the autonomous floor scrubbers to all 600 Sam’s Club stores.
- Walmart announced that its local fulfillment center (LFC) concept of modular warehouses built within or added to stores will use automated bots to retrieve products. The system, which is being developed in partnership with Alert Innovation, Dematic and Fabric has been used in a pilot location in Salem, New Hampshire since 2019.
- Midwestern grocer Schnuck Markets announced it is expanding its rollout of Simbe “Tally” robots, which have been in 16 stores since 2017. The new deployments will go into an additional 46 stores. In addition, Schucks also plans to add autonomous floor scrubbers by Tennant/Brain Corp. to half its stores by the end of 2021.
Next Wave of Autonomous Retail
For shoppers, the benefit of robots roaming store aisles and warehouses is quicker, safer, and more reliable access to products. For retailers, the benefit is avoiding inventory disruptions and lost sales.
However, it is not a stretch to envision redesigning stores to better utilize robots, which has been done for automated warehouses.
The Amazon Go store, for example, is a fully automated store that has the tag line: “No lines. No checkout. (No, Seriously.)”
And it’s not the only grab-and-go store. Dutch convenience store operator, Wundermart, is using technology from AiFI to open 20 unmanned stores, many of which are located in 24/7 gas stations. The computer-vision technology delivers highly accurate product recognition, shopper tracking and receipt accuracy.
Alimentation Couche-Tard, operator of Circle K convenience stores, is now installing a fully automated convenience store in Arizona that uses computer vision systems by Standard Cognition. Compass, an operator of thousands of canteens in corporate headquarters and college campuses is also using the Standard Cognition autonomous store concept in three locations.
Other robotic systems that are being rapidly developed include self-driving vehicles (for roads and sidewalks), point-to-point mobile delivery bots (for large facilities, headquarters and campuses), and drones for home delivery.
Catalyzed by forces unleashed during the pandemic, the deployment of robotics in retail has accelerated and will likely reach mainstream adoption within the next two-to-three years.