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Why Robots Are Becoming Commonplace in Grocery Stores

Joe Skorupa

Editor-at-Large, RIS News

Grocery shopping in Woodman’s Food Market stores just got a little more convenient and a lot more interesting thanks to a robot rolling down the aisles and scanning shelves. The six-foot-tall robot checks for empty shelves, misplaced products, and incorrect pricing so shoppers searching for their favorite box of graham crackers aren’t disappointed.

According to Tyler Davis, IT project director at Woodman’s, his robot eureka moment occurred when one of the bots correctly scanned a shelf and differentiated between two kinds of graham crackers. One was cinnamon flavored and the other low fat. The only difference was a tiny banner.

“Otherwise, they were identical — same dimensions, brand, logo,” Davis said. “The robot spotted that and figured it out.”

Today, robots are found not only in Woodman’s stores in Illinois and Wisconsin, but also in a growing list of grocery stores around the country. These include Sam’s Club, Giant Food Stores, and Schnuck Markets.

Everyone hates empty shelves

Shoppers often visit grocery stores with a list and a mission to get everything they need. So they are disappointed when they reach for a favorite brand of baking powder or salad dressing or cereal, and it’s not there.

Grocers also hate empty shelves, because it means they are disappointing their shoppers and losing sales. According to Ben Forgan in the Harvard Business Review, “Robots free up workers from routine tasks … 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.”

This means fewer disappointments caused by empty shelves for shoppers and grocers alike.

Thanks to sophisticated computer vision cameras in shelf-scanning robots, Woodman’s is able to collect a huge amount of valuable data it can use to improve store operations. 

“When a robot runs through one of our stores, we take every item scanned and look for insights,” Davis said.

The insight Davis examines can raise important questions, such as, “Which items haven’t sold in a while? These items need to be reviewed. Or are there 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 questions like these, grocers can make smarter decisions and operate more efficient stores.

Robotics’ next wave

Both Sam’s Club and Schnucks recently began expanding their robot fleets with the addition of autonomous floor scrubbers, which help make the store environment safer for both shoppers and essential workers.

However, while shoppers are seeing more robots in stores performing a growing list of tasks, the biggest robot deployments are occurring behind the scenes in warehouses.

Kroger, America’s largest grocer, is in the process of building 20 automated warehouses that use dozens of autonomous bots running across thousands of square feet of floor space, and up racks of shelves to pick products for online orders. 

Other retailers operating or currently building bot-filled warehouses include Amazon, Walmart, Gap, American Eagle, and Chewy.

For shoppers, the benefit of robots roaming store aisles and warehouse racks is quicker and more reliable access to products. For retailers, the benefit is avoiding inventory disruptions that prevent getting the right products to the right places.

However, it is not a stretch to envision redesigning stores to better utilize robots, just as they have done for fully automated warehouses. In fact, the Amazon Go store is a fully automated concept that has already rolled out in several American cities. Its tag line is “No lines. No checkout. (No, Seriously.)”

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