The high-tech touchless grocery store that Amazon opened in Seattle this past February was viewed by some in the grocery industry as an expensive gimmick, a multimillion-dollar publicity stunt. The future of grocery retail? No way. It’s never gonna work, many said.
Then a highly contagious respiratory disease called COVID-19 came along and blew up everyone’s idea of the future of retail. Now, food retailers are scrambling to add many of the contactless shopping features that Amazon was thinking about years ago, when it first developed the Go concept.
- Convert self-service features to full service.
- Now is the time to audit your ventilation system.
- Robots are cleaner and cheaper.
Back then, Amazon had no way of knowing that in the year 2020, going to the grocery store would be viewed by many consumers as a life-or-death matter. But Amazon did know that eliminating pain points — things such as navigating crowds, standing close to other people in a long checkout line, having to pass dirty cash to a cashier or swipe a credit card through a grimy terminal — was always going to be a good idea.
Today, making a shopper endure those pain points seems like an outdated way to retail. COVID has made touch-free grocery, sanitation and automation the new way forward in the grocery channel as consumers demand a safer shopping experience. Now, Kroger is touchless, Publix is touchless, and Walmart is more touchless than Target, or is it the other way around? Everyone, from the corner gas station to the local Outback Steakhouse to the nail salon down the street, is going touchless. And as the pandemic wears on, it’s clear that touchless commerce and many other changes, especially those having to do with safety and sanitation, are here to stay in the food and grocery industries.
Designing for COVID
Since the onset of the pandemic, many grocery retailers have been doing a heroic job of implementing a rigorous regimen of safety practices throughout the store: outfitting employees with personal protective equipment (PPE) and frequently cleaning shopping carts, checkout counters and payment PIN pads. Other retailers have focused on ramping up e-commerce services such as curbside pickup, scan-and-go, and contactless payments.
“We’re thinking strategically with our clients about how to make improvements throughout the store so that you have smarter, more creative solutions than, say, one-way aisles,” says John Scheffel, VP and director of visual design for api(+), a Tampa, Fla.-based design and architecture firm specializing in the grocery sector that has designed stores for Ahold Delhaize, Schnucks, Southeastern Grocers, Lowes Foods and The Fresh Market, among others. Scheffel says that many current pandemic-related practices in food retail may be temporary, but they will be permanent in terms of coming back again and again.
“Some social distancing measures in-store are going to be temporary things that reappear,” he says, “so they could be reimplemented with additional waves of cases or another virus. Measures might ease in between and then need to be enforced again. But there will be some permanent changes in people's mentalities and philosophies as a result of COVID-19.”
“This requires innovative design solutions that not only reduce fear, but reinstill the levels of trust and enjoyment that shoppers experienced prior to the pandemic.” Behrens adds that her company is seeing strong interest from retailers seeking to reinvent their salad bars with robotics.
As consumers keep social distancing, retailers must find a way to optimize their shopping journey, given the conflicting forces between their desire for a safer shopping experience and retailers’ desire to increase engagement and uplift, according to Arvin Jawa, VP of retail strategy at North Canton, Ohio-based technology company Diebold Nixdorf.
“To further minimize the number of device touches and screen contact, user interfaces can be augmented with predictive modeling capabilities, contactless payment, video coupled with machine learning for product recognition, or even executing part of the checkout process on the consumer’s smartphone,” Jawa says. “These are measures that retailers will need to consider in order to further gain trust with consumers that their shopping environments are both safe and efficient.”
Clean = Trust
Another solution for retailers looking to prevent in-store spread could be installing portable sinks so that employees and customers can easily wash their hands. Handwashing with soap is a proven method for reducing the spread of the virus, so it’s imperative to make it easily accessible, urges Martin Watts, founder and CEO of Ozark River Manufacturing Co., in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Amazon, MGM Grand, Sony Pictures, Toyota, Boeing and Cracker Barrel are considering this option as states reopen.
Rise of the Robots
Food retailers large and small are also relying on automation to solve several facets of the pandemic safety challenge. They’re expanding how they use robots to keep employees safer, increase social distancing and reduce the number of staff that have to physically come to work. For example, Walmart is using robots to scrub its floors.
Bryan Smith, senior marketing manager for the Americas at Minneapolis-based Tennant Co., says that robots free up staff time for cleaning and disinfection. “Robotic cleaning machines allow retailers to rapidly increase cleaning frequency without increasing labor costs,” Smith observes.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, Brain Corp., which produces AI software that Tennant and others use to power their robotic floor scrubbers, has seen a significant uptick in usage.
During the first four months of the year, use of BrainOS-powered robotic floor scrubbers in U.S. retail locations rose 18% compared with the same period last year, including a 24% year-over-year increase in April, according to Brain Corp data. Of that 18% year-to-date increase, more than two-thirds (68%) occurred during the daytime, between 6 a.m. and 5:59 p.m.
“We expect this increase to continue as the value of automation and robotics comes sharply into focus,” says Phil Duffy, VP of innovation at San Diego-based Brain Corp.
Another important benefit to retailers is that the autonomous robots allow companies to set and meet compliance standards in regard to daily cleaning routines.
“Via cloud-based operational metrics, they can accurately measure things like cleaning coverage and time spent cleaning per day,” notes Duffy. “Those metrics provided by the robots enable store managers to track the work that has been done, compare that data against their compliance targets, and with that, optimize cleaning quality and consistency.”
Now is the time for food retailers to start putting the foundations in place to make their stores safer to shop.