NRF 2018: Wakefern, Postmates Tap Next-Gen Cameras And Robotics To Improve Logistics

The NRF Big Show often highlights future technology that retailers might not deploy for a few years. But when it comes to improving the shelf stocking experience or building out a smooth logistics system, the future is now. Wakefern Foods and Postmates are leveraging out-of-stock detection cameras and robotics to bolster the shopper experience, both in stores and while awaiting a home delivery.

In a Q&A led by Seth Webb, Managing Director at Tusk Ventures, three retail and supply chain executives discussed the future of logistics. Panelists included:

  • Vikrum Aiyer, Head of Public Policy and Strategic Communications at Postmates;
  • Christopher McCrae, Manager of Retail Logistics at Wakefern Food Co.; and
  • Nick Saunders, Senior VP of Sales and Marketing at Quiet Logistics.

ShopRite Prioritizes Replenishment With Deep Learning-Powered Shopping Carts

Wakefern sought to improve its in-stock levels at ShopRite stores, since it was proving expensive for department managers to constantly walk the supermarket aisles instead of spending time on more productive tasks. Soon after meeting with members of the Focal Systems team at NRF 2017, the retailer partnered with the company.


“In a grocery store we typically have around 50,000 items so there’s a lot of shelves, there’s a lot of items and there’s a lot of aisles,” McCrae said during the session. “When you go to add something to your shopping cart in our brick-and-mortar store, or you do a click-and-collect, if that item’s not there, you can’t buy it. We lost that sale. The challenge is, how do we keep the items on the shelf? How do we keep those high-moving promo items on the shelf as our customers come in and buy them?”

To solve this problem, the company has deployed Focal Systems out-of-stock cameras on shopping carts in 50 ShopRite stores. As shoppers walk up and down aisles, the cameras’ deep learning capabilities alert Wakefern store managers about where items need to be replenished.

“We run through our algorithms and say, ‘How much inventory was in place last night and how much has been sold so far today?’” McCrae said. “There’s some algorithmic factor that some [products] might be in carts wandering around the stores for people that haven’t checked out yet. We build a task list, and we take specific targeted employees and direct them to replenish an aisle, or refill certain items. Those items are the promo items, these are more important, these are the ones that are going to be the high-movers today. Go replenish them.”

Wakefern also uses the Focal Systems platform to alert its direct store vendors about when they should deliver new products.

Postmates Brings Value To Last Mile With Robotics

As an on-demand delivery service, Postmates needs to adopt next-gen technologies in order to improve the buying experience. The service handles two million transactions every month. The company is designed to serve local economies, treating the city as a warehouse (as opposed to building warehouses just outside cities as major retailers often do).

Even with its in-town infrastructure, Postmates discovered that shorter deliveries were proving unprofitable. On average, a Postmates driver gets $19 to $27 per hour, but that’s built on the premise that the deliveries they’re making are more than a mile.

This built-in inefficiency led Postmates to start testing robotic delivery, which Aiyer described as “little coolers on wheels” that operate on the same Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) technology as an autonomous vehicle.

“We started our pilot experiment in Washington, D.C.,” said Aiyer. “If you can imagine how many police forces beyond the Secret Service [have jurisdiction there], for them to allow us to operate these little devices up and down their sidewalks was a big deal. It helped set a national precedent for us. We’ve since gotten legislation and framework in Virginia, Wisconsin, the city of Boston and a smattering of cities in California. I know this sounds like the most Silicon Valley statement ever, but it was really important for us to integrate and build out these frameworks of robotics with the cities first before putting them on the road.”

Postmates integrated the robotics technology into its supply chain “without offsetting a single human job,” according to Aiyer. And with the technology, couriers are now reserved for more long-distance deliveries, enabling them to make more money over time, and also lower traffic congestion within cities. Aiyer indicated that merchants also transacted at a higher volume rate after the robotics testing began, since robots and couriers manned the roads at the same time.

Robotics solutions also assisted the Quiet Logistics team, enabling the company to scale up its brand more quickly, especially during the peak holiday season. The pick and pack company used the Locus robotic technology alongside human workers and has shipped 1.6 million units since the implementation, shipping 330,000 units on Black Friday 2017 alone. By the end of 2018, Quiet Logistics expects to have 100 robots in a 300,000-square-foot+ warehouse.

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