Governments and grocery stores are asking people maintain “social distance” while shopping to protect both patrons and employees from the novel coronavirus. At the same time, interest in robotics applications has risen, but early deployments have received mixed reviews.
At the moment, robots can look for spills, clean floors, check inventory, or direct customers, but no robot can do more than one or two of these things. Still, grocery stores have genuine needs for the functions these service robots offer, providing an early glimpse of how they could eventually help more retailers, even after the COVID-19 crisis has passed.
Below are examples of five robotic systems currently in use at grocery stores:
This grocery store robot, made by Badger Technologies, alerts shoppers to potential hazards such as spills. One article published this year clarified that 172 Giant stores and 325 Stop & Shop locations in the U.S. have used Marty since January 2019 after successful trials.
The bilingual robot speaks in English and Spanish to communicate with shoppers. Stop & Shop said that Marty discovers approximately 40 spills in each store per day across 12 sessions where it scans the surroundings.
Badger Technologies is working with Neurala Inc. on vision-based AI and with AT&T to use 5G technologies with Badger.
Giant Eagle and Schnucks use this tall, slender supermarket robot made by Simbe Robotics to monitor shelves. It alerts workers to out-of-stock items or other problems related to merchandise presentation, such as products in the wrong location.
The robot takes a predefined path around a store and transmits the collected data to employees, letting them know when and where to restock goods.
As of December 2019, Tally was only in three Giant Eagle grocery stores. A representative said the rollout is purposefully slow so that the retailer can monitor how things are going and whether to scale up. Employees get data from the robot every 30 minutes during the trial.
Schnucks deployed Tally in 2017 for a three-store pilot and then put Tally in 15 stores in October 2018. Then, in the fall of 2019, the brand integrated the shelf data with its mobile app to help customers find what they need more efficiently.
Walmart relies on this shopping robot to speed the fulfillment of customers’ online orders. Alphabot, a product manufactured by Alert Innovation, can roll along rails surrounding storage bins containing food and climb up the three-story storage structures.
Once it finds the correct container, the bot removes it and takes it to a human worker who picks out the proper item.
Walmart began using Alphabot in 2019. According to the company, the machine currently assists with about 20% of its online grocery orders associated with a single fulfillment center in New Hampshire.
The retailer said it plans to introduce this robotic system to facilities in Oklahoma and California. Although customers never see Alphabot, they benefit from it by getting their orders prepared fast and accurately.
Woolworths, an Australian retailer (not to be confused with the U.S. or U.K. retailers), first brought this robot to grocery stores in Sydney. It is similar to Marty, the hazard-detecting robot described above. However, Millie is a bit more advanced. Instead of merely alerting employees to the spills, it can find and clean them up.
The mobile robot received mixed reviews from customers during a month-long trial in April 2019. Some people said the grocery store robot had unfriendly eyes, especially if seen from an angle. Others wondered whether it would replace humans who dealt with spills before. The grocery store brand nevertheless decided to bring Millie to a second location later in the year.
Woolworths is also working with Boston-based Takeoff Technologies for automating micro-fulfillment operations.
Out-of-stock items can be frustrating for customers who expect to find exactly what they want at their favorite grocery stores. However, periods of high demand such as holidays or labor shortages during quarantines can put stress on staff members and leave shoppers feeling fed up. SmartSight is a supermarket robot that aims to avoid these issues by assisting with inventory management.
The robot uses technologies like machine learning and computer vision to spot problems such as low stock or pricing mistakes. Zebra Technologies said its robot can increase available inventory by 95% and reduces manual inventory time by 65 hours per week.
The company introduced the technology at the National Retail Federation trade show in January. Thus, its website does not yet feature case studies of retailers testing the machine.
One compelling thing about this robot is that grocery stores can subscribe to use it through a robotics-as-a-service (RaaS) model. As a result, they don’t need to worry about things that could otherwise slow their adoption rates, such as the cost of future repairs.
Retail robots beyond grocery stores
A look at the list above shows that grocery stores have shared priorities in their uses of robots. For example, both Millie and Marty help manage spills. They could reduce a brand’s liability associated with people slipping and falling while shopping. The SmartSight EMA50 and Tally assist grocery stores in keeping shelves stocked and looking for errors like items returned to the wrong places.
Although Alphabot focuses on order fulfillment, it is not a lone player in the broader grocery sector. The Wall Street Journal has profiled companies that provide highly automated microfulfillment centers for grocery stores. Their small footprint can help many chains, which have such facilities behind their customer-facing outlets or in dense urban areas.
One such fulfillment center in Israel processes about 600 grocery orders per day and allows customers to get same-day deliveries. Such a perk could help smaller brands compete with companies like Amazon.
Another commonality between the robots mentioned here is that their builds help people recognize them as robots. Chinese grocery brand 7Fresh takes a different approach. Its robots double as shopping carts. A customer must download a mobile app and scan a QR code located on the cart. Those actions trigger the autonomous cart to follow a person around the store and scan items placed in it. When customers finish shopping, they pay with facial recognition.
Grocery store robots intriguing, but not yet widely used
Many applications of these robots are still in the early stages. Corporate decision-makers often prefer to test the waters with care. Some brands may ultimately decide not to go through with a widespread rollout of a grocery store robot that seemed promising but fell short of expectations.
Although the list here primarily focuses on robots customers see, companies may instead prefer machines that work behind the scenes to fill orders. Despite the uncertainty about what’s ahead for these high-tech machines, there’s no question that grocery stores are at least open to what they could do. That’s progress in itself.