In-store robots aren’t just tools that can check for mislabeled products or clean messes in a timely manner. They also provide an answer to some of the challenges created by the pandemic, as executives from Woodman’s Markets and Badger Technologies discussed during a session titled The Rise Of Robotics In Retail at the 2020 Retail Innovation Conference. Robots can detect misplaced products used to cover shelving holes, speed up online orders and make restocking easier, by constantly mapping a store and sharing this data with key players.
Woodman’s Markets operates 230,000-square-foot stores with approximately 100,000 SKUs each, and like most grocers its inventory was hit hard by shoppers stocking up early in the pandemic. The sheer size of each location meant checking shelves by hand is impractical, but Badger’s shelf-scanning robots have been able to pinpoint the specific areas and products that need restocking at the four locations where they have been deployed.
“Our President and CEO does not like empty shelves — so as COVID started and supply lines started to fail, we would take similar products and spread them out across the shelf,” said Tyler Davis, IT Project Coordinator at Woodman’s Markets. “Where you had chocolate, vanilla and strawberry, you may have chocolate spread out across all the flavors. Now we can take the mis-stock reports, run them by the warehouse totals and say, ‘Here are the key items that are now currently back in stock at our warehouse, but are incorrectly stocked on our shelves.’”
The retailer utilizes autonomous robots to almost continuously scan the stores where they operate, completing three full circuits each day. The machines, which Davis nicknamed “our anti-COVID robots,” run from 7 am through 11 pm and 1 am to 5 am, pausing only to charge their batteries. In addition to finding misplaced displays, the robots can detect pricing mistakes and sale price discrepancies.
The robots also provide location data down to four-foot sections, which Woodman’s Markets will use to empower associates when it comes to fulfilling online orders and stocking shelves. This data will be uploaded to its mobile shopping app, where it will guide pickers to each item to improve delivery times. The location data also is being shared with the retailer’s main distributor, which will start to ship palettes organized by section to save associates an estimated three hours per night.
The robots also can improve merchandising. Woodman’s Markets plans to add an average weekly sales report to the robots’ data output, which will help managers determine which items are selling well and which are sitting on the shelves for extended periods. This will help them make better-informed decisions about how much shelf space each item needs.
Versatility is the key to retail robots’ success, according to Tim Rowland, CEO of Badger Technologies. The solution provider started from a foundation of focusing on navigation, including properly following aisles and knowing when to stop if a kid wants to give the robot a hug. Once safe operations were established, Badger and Woodman’s Markets were able to explore the business applications that naturally followed.
“With the size of these stores, we add tens of miles every time we run,” said Tim Rowland. “Getting the navigation was kind of the foundational point, and then fundamentally what do you want to do with this payload? It can have cameras focused in different directions and it can pick up different things — what do you do with the images? What is of value to guys like Tyler and his team — what can they do with it and what else can we add?”