Robotics Move Beyond Warehouses To Stores And The Last Mile

Robotics technologies deployed within retail, food service and hospitality already are reducing the number of humans needed to perform their jobs. But the growth of these technologies also can provide help for employees handling a wide range of functions — whether it’s tracking inventory, identifying where a store aisle needs to be cleaned up or even assisting on last-mile delivery.

The latest change comes in where robots are being tested and deployed. While retailers have been using robotics for years within warehouses and distribution centers, advances in the technology are extending use cases into stores, where there are multiple opportunities to automate tedious, repetitive tasks. In fact, a survey from Bossa Nova Robotics indicated that:

  • 76% of retailers say the introduction of robots in stores would improve employee productivity; and
  • 74% said that while inventory accuracy would improve as a result, increased profits would be another direct result of introducing in-store robots.

At this stage, a select few major retailers are on board with robotics pilots of their own, with merchants such as Walmart, Ahold Delhaize’s GIANT and Stop & Shop chains, Albertsons and Lowe’s all implementing the technology at different points within the retail ecosystem.

MIT Professor: Don’t Fret Retail Job Losses

During a presentation at eTail Boston, Dr. George Westerman, Senior Lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management, noted that using robots is becoming much more than a nice-to-have within retail environments, especially if retailers are committed to transforming their store operations.


“Here’s one thing people hate to do — ‘Hey, I have this screw, can you help me find it on the shelf somewhere?’” Westerman said. “Can you imagine what a horrible thing this is for an associate to do? But it happens to them all the time in both The Home Depot and Lowe’s — so Lowe’s has the Lowebot. You show this screw to the Lowebot and it says, ‘Come here, sir’ and walks you right over to it. This is replacing people in jobs where people don’t want to do that job anyway. What I mean is it’s not about the robots, it’s the transformed process. It’s using it the right way and changing your company for the better because of the technology.”

Walmart Will Deploy 350 Mobile Robots In Stores To Monitor Pricing, Out-Of-Stocks

Walmart has been one of the first to deploy autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) from Bossa Nova Robotics in 50 Walmart stores across the U.S. The AMRs roam up and down store aisles, checking for pricing issues, product out-of-stocks and shelf irregularities. For example, they can identify whether a slot within a shelf is empty or full, correctly identify which SKU is in the slot and identify the price associated with the slot.

After the success of the initial pilot, Walmart is increasing the presence of the AMRs to 350 stores by the end of 2019. Martin Hitch, Co-Founder and Chief Business Officer of Bossa Nova Robotics, told Retail TouchPoints that the larger implementation within a closer subset of stores will further enable Walmart to test the support infrastructure of the robots and learn more about scalability. “There is a requirement to get to a statistically relevant store sample size that will inform what scale looks like in my chain of stores,” Hitch said.

Walmart provides just one example of how retailers are continuing to adapt to the technology both in and out of stores.

“In order to respond, traditional retailers with stores also will have to become more efficient,” said Martin Ford, futurist and author of Rise Of The Robots: Technology And The Threat Of A Jobless Future in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “Walmart and others have been testing robots for taking store inventory by counting the things that are on the store shelves. Part of the nature of robotics is that it’s easier to make one designed just to observe something, versus building a robot that physically does something like pick up a box. Eventually, however, robots will be unloading trucks or putting items on shelves, particularly in areas where the products are standardized. That’s probably inevitable.”

Cleanup On Aisle 6: ‘Marty’ Robots Patrol Stores For Spills, Shopper Safety

Ahold Delhaize has launched nearly 500 robots at its GIANT and Stop & Shop stores to patrol the aisles for spills and, eventually, out-of-stock items. These six-foot-three machines have been outfitted with “googly eyes” and nametags that read “Marty” to deliver personality within the store.The robot’s functions also are expected to expand to include planogram compliance.

The robots are equipped with the same type of navigation system as a self-driving car, allowing them to accurately map and navigate the store. They can detect and travel around unexpected barriers and can differentiate these obstacles from shoppers: when Marty observes a person walk within several feet, it stops and waits for them to get out of the way before resuming its patrol.

“Retail has initially invested in robotics for back-of-the-house or even supply chain with great success,” said Joanne Joliet, Senior Director Analyst within Industry Advisory Services, Retail at Gartner in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “We’ve seen absolute optimization in supply chain practices including fulfillment. As tech continued to evolve and as retailers were trying to evolve the customer experience in-store and create a differentiated experience, that has shifted a little further back toward the operational side, where we’re seeing more robots being used to understand out-of-stocks within the store and taking care of maintenance issues.”

Last Mile Delivery: The Next Robotics Frontier?

The most recent (and thus, least studied) area of retail robotics implementations has come outside the store and distribution center in the form of autonomous last-mile delivery, with examples such as the FedEx SameDay Bot pilot and Amazon’s Scout delivery system being piloted in 2019. Originally developed for the Pacific Northwest, Scout expanded to select Southern California test neighborhoods earlier this month, for deliveries Monday through Friday to Prime members during daylight hours. Of all the technologies in deployment, these are the ones that likely need to undergo the most tests, according to Joliet.

“I’ve had a conversation with the head of Scout and they looked at every permutation and test for that before rolling out, and that’s what I mean when I say test and test again,” Joliet said. “To remediate an issue down the road is going to be challenging as you roll out and have more places to fix it beyond the pilot markets. Now I’m in the Carolinas, and there are some rural parts around here — is Scout appropriate to go into rural areas? Likely not. So again, you have to look at the technology and still determine how it can best serve a specific environment and roll that out.”

For any last-mile robotics delivery initiative to be successful, Joliet pointed out that retailers will have to take operational factors into account including battery life, monitoring and security concerns, such as whether a delivery recipient puts an unauthorized item back on the robot. Of course, these technologies must integrate with their environment without becoming a nuisance to others.

“When crossing the street, how would it integrate with the traffic lights and the cars so that it doesn’t create an unsafe situation for anybody?” Joliet said. “How does it yield to a pedestrian or a child or a dog on a sidewalk? The technology is all there, but it’s about putting it together in a cost-effective way before retailers can roll this out.

‘Stores As DCs’ Gives New Meaning To Robotics Implementation

With robotics technologies now being tested on the last mile, it’s clear that retailers are taking steps to continue improving shopper experiences from the warehouse all the way to product delivery. But now that more iterations of these technologies exist, retailers have the opportunity to blend how they approach robotics for store employees across the organization. Bossa Nova’s Hitch noted that as retailers continue to turn stores into distribution centers, robotics technologies of all kinds will be valuable throughout the physical retail ecosystem, and merchants must treat them as such.

“People have been talking about it for a long time, but the reality is there’s an awful lot of brick-and-mortar assets around the country that put any of those retail brands closer to the customer, and leveraging that is key,” Hitch said. “This to me is where we’ll see a lot of evolution across multiple technologies. I don’t think there will be one single winner. There will be a combination of different robotics technologies that will be required to shift stores to distribution centers. Having 10% of a store as a stockroom right now clearly isn’t the right model if you want the store to act as a distribution center. There will be a shift in how much is floor space, and how much is warehouse space, to determine what technologies will go into that.”

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