As today’s top grocers seek to find ways to cut costs and allow their associates to focus more directly on attending to shoppers’ needs, they’re employing automation and robotics throughout the store, improving efficiency and accuracy in operations from food safety all the way to the last mile of delivery.
While many grocers have gone on record to share noteworthy ways that they’re working internally and externally to integrate new grocery technology in these areas — and even more are keeping their lips sealed — here are five noteworthy food retailers and the areas in which they’re employing the latest in robotics and automation solutions.
Walmart and Ecommerce Picking
When online grocers ramp up ecommerce operations, it’s important that they add technology to make floor associates’ lives easier in the order-building and -fulfillment process. Walmart arguably has experienced such growth more than any other traditional brick-and-mortar operator in recent years, so, in partnership with North Billerica, Mass.-based startup Alert Innovation, it launched Alphabot to assist in the picking process.
Said to be the first of its kind, the solution helps store pickers speed up the process of filling online grocery orders, using automated mobile carts that work behind the scenes by picking products from the storage area and delivering them to one of four picking stations, where pickers consolidate the items into customers’ orders. Pickers can spend less time walking the aisles for center store items and more time selecting such fresh items as meat and produce.
“With the aid of Alphabot, our associates will have more time to focus on service and selling, the two things they often tell us are the most enjoyable part of the job, while the technology handles the more mundane, repeatable tasks,” said Mark Ibbotson, EVP of central operations, Walmart U.S., at the time of the launch. “Although this is a small pilot, we expect big things from it. We have a lot to learn about this new technology, and we’re excited about the possibilities of how we can use it to make the future of shopping — and working — even better.”
The innovation is being introduced in the Bentonville, Ark.-based mega-retailer’s Salem, N.H., Superstore as part of the location’s grand reopening, so it should be up and running by the year’s end. A 20,000-square-foot extension was built onto the store to house the technology and serve as a dedicated grocery pickup point with drive-thru lanes for customers.
Amazon and ‘Just Walk Out’ Shopping
Scan-as-you-shop technology is one of the hot new technologies for easing the shopping experience. The problem here, though, is pushing customers to do more work by downloading an app and scanning every product as they put it into the basket — which is arguably why Walmart’s solution of this kind failed.
Ecommerce giant Amazon sought to change this earlier this year with the public debut of its Amazon Go format, which uses “just walk out” technology to create a truly grab-and-go experience requiring no additional effort on the shopper's part.
To give a quick overview of how it works: The store uses technology similar to that powering self-driving cars, employing computer vision, sensor fusion and deep learning to automatically detect when products are removed from, or placed back on, shelves. To use the “just walk out” technology, patrons download and check in via a mobile app, take what they want, and walk out the door, where they are charged for the products they take with them. There are no lines or barcodes to be scanned in the process.
Granted, the store’s public debut came 10 months late due to technical difficulties. During a March presentation at ShopTalk in Las Vegas, Amazon Go VPs Dilip Kumar and Gianna Puerini revealed some of those issues, which included pulling off the “just walk out” technology in a way that makes it seamless and effortless, developing algorithms that are beyond state-of-the-art for computer vision and machine learning to solve the problems of who took what, and creating the robust hardware and software infrastructure to support everything. Even retraining customers’ behavior when shopping and leaving a typical grocery store presented a challenge.