The pandemic lit a fire under retailers to expand the use 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 a 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 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 this 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?” explains 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.
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 recently announced 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…
Read More: Why Retailers Are Learning to Love Robots