UNFI Takes New Steps in Supply Chain Transformation

Wholesaler teams with tech providers to deploy scanning, robotics solutions
Lynn Petrak, Progressive Grocer
UNFI robotics
UNFI is readying Symbotic’s AI-powered robotics and software automation system for its distribution center in Centralia, Wash.

Prolific grocery wholesaler United Natural Foods, Inc. (UNFI) is making new moves as part of its ongoing supply chain transformation. Among other enhancements, UNFI has updated its operating procedures, increased associate training programs and deployed new technologies.

Technologies are key to some of the latest efficiencies that benefit suppliers, retailers and others in the chain. For example, UNFI is rolling out out new scanning technologies from Systems Applications Enterprises, Inc. at its 18 of its distribution centers.  Barcodes are at the heart of these solutions that encompass picking, loading and driving functions. UNFI expects to extend the scanning technologies to more sites through 2024.

[Read more: "EXCLUSIVE: 5 Food Trends From UNFI's Selling Show"]

In addition, UNFI is planning to install a new AI-powered robotics and software automation system from Symbiotic to one of its distribution centers in Centralia, Wash. That AI-based system is designed to improve order accuracy and better organize products on pallets to quicken processes at the store level. According to UNFI, work on that system will begin this spring and, following a period of testing and training, it will roll out next year.

“The efficiency of our supply chain is fundamental to our customer experience. We have been engaged in a detailed review focused on broadly improving our operations,” said Erin Horvath, UNFI’s chief supply chain transformation officer.

She cited the AI-driven improvements to the Centralia site as an example of the company's commitment to efficiencies. “Our Centralia distribution center supports a large customer base in the Pacific Northwest, including retailers in Alaska and export customers through the Port of Washington,” explained Horvath. “To support our growth and a robust retailer base in this region, we’ll be deploying automation to improve the service we provide retailers, better manage external labor resources, and create a more efficient operating network system in the Pacific Northwest over time.”

UNFI is embracing some of the latest technologies across its operations. Earlier this year, the wholesaler announced that it is teaming up with transaction and retail solutions provider ECRS to help grocers connect critical retail operations technologies in real time while accessing UNFI’s suite of professional services from digital coupons and third-party delivery services to more affordable electronic payments. The company has refined other solutions, too, such as electronic shelf labels and scan-and-go technologies used by traditional and natural retailers.

The focus on tech-fueled efficiencies comes as UNFI is streamlining its business during a volatile economic climate. Earlier in March, UNFI raised its sales outlook for the rest of its fiscal year but dialed back profitability expectations.

Providence, R.I.-based UNFI delivers a wide variety of products to customer locations throughout North America, including natural product superstores, independent retailers, conventional supermarket chains, e-commerce retailers and foodservice customers. The largest publicly traded grocery distributor in America, the company is No. 49 on The PG 100, Progressive Grocer’s 2022 list of the top food and consumables retailers in North America.

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