Tech

Robots have landed in grocery store aisles—here’s how they’re helping retailers “remain competitive”

Grocers are evaluating how robots can improve operations, from inventory scanning to last-mile delivery.
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Brain Corporation

· 5 min read

When we think of robots, the droids that live in a galaxy far, far away may come to mind. But autonomous machines have been popping up a bit closer to home—like, say, in our local grocery stores.

Those on the East Coast may have seen Marty, the googly-eyed hazard-detecting machine (that caused a stir on Twitter a few years ago) roving the aisles of their neighborhood Stop & Shop, while Kroger shoppers across the country have likely spotted a scrubber cleaning the floors with no one in the driver’s seat.

  • These fleets are growing: In an April 2021 RetailWire survey, 47% of retailers said they would be involved with an in-store robotics project within the next 18 months.

As the roles of grocery workers evolve, robots have emerged as solutions for easy(ish)-to-automate tasks, be it cleaning, monitoring stock levels, or even fulfilling deliveries.

Future in focus: Sam’s Club is one of the latest companies to double down: After deploying those aforementioned smart scrubbers, made by Brain Corporation, to all of its ~600 locations, it added the company's new inventory-checking capabilities late last month. Todd Garner, VP of in club product management, said the Walmart-owned retailer hopes to continue to be at the “forefront of this technology.”

“We had a leader at Walmart that said one time, ‘Loyalty is the absence of a better option,’” Garner told Retail Brew. “As that bar to excite members continues to rise, technology like these are critical for Sam’s Club, or really any retailer, to remain competitive.”

Nuts and bolts

The robot overlords creators, too, are advancing their tech to meet evolving needs.

Brain Corp has deployed 20,000+ floor-care robots since the company was founded in 2009, focusing on making traditionally manual cleaning processes autonomous, explained Josh Baylin, its VP of product and marketing. Recently, it’s been evaluating data collection opportunities to make the most of the robots’ trips up and down aisles, he told us.

The company has bolted new sensors onto its fleet of robotic scrubbers to take high-resolution images, monitoring shelf conditions (spotting missing facings, misplaced products, or misaligned pricing signs), to give retailers and CPG companies real-time shelf insights.

  • The Sam’s Club partnership is the first chain-wide application of this tech.

Shelf-improvement: Over at Hy-Vee and Schnucks, Simbe Robotics is keeping an eye on shelves with a robot named Tally, first introduced in 2015. Tally covers the “physical retail blind spot,” Simbe CEO Brad Bologea told us. By digitizing information about product availability, location, and price, it hopes to help retailers and big CPG be “more proactive” across their supply chain. (A system to detect produce freshness is next, Bologea said.)

“How many times do you want to know, before you go out to a store, ‘is that product really going to be on the shelf?’ It’s often like sort of driving without Google Maps today, you don't know where the thing is, and you don't know if it’s going to be on shelves,” he said.

  • Upon delivery, Tally executes a two-to-three-week long quality assurance process, identifying in-store issues that impact bottom lines, and ultimately, determining ROI.

Oh, and you’ve already met Marty, the creation of Badger Technologies, which deploys “more of an augmentation strategy for process improvements” around inventory. It collects data around out of stocks and pricing, as well as product location, which is particularly helpful for pick-and-pack operations, CEO BJ Santiago said.

  • Marty also helps grocers cry a little less over spilled milk, by keeping its googly eyes open for any floor hazards.
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Deliver in full: On the West Coast (and across the pond), Starship Technologies’ sidewalk robots have made 2.5 million food deliveries since their 2014 debut, many at university campuses. While schools are an “interesting market” for Starship, its sights are set on the “global phenomenon” of grocery delivery, according to Ryan Tuohy, the startup’s SVP of business development, sales and government relations.

In the UK, Starship has partnered with retailers like Tesco, and it’s growing its US operations in California with Save Mart. After introducing robotic delivery at its Modesto location last year, the grocer expanded the service to its Lucky Supermarket in Pleasanton earlier this month.

  • These delivery bots can be valuable for regional chains that have significant market share on their home turf, Tuohy said, noting that less populated areas often have fewer workers to rely on.

Pilot season

When Tuohy started at Starship four and a half years ago, he said the concept of delivery robots seemed like science fiction—even an “empty promise” to retailers. But through pilots and partnerships with large retailers like Tesco, the company has “done the hard yards to prove ourselves.”

He believes robots are now being seen as a “mainstream tool.”

A key caveat to that, though: Most robots were created to support, not replace, human workers, the companies we spoke to noted. Yet labor constraints stressing the US food system have made them increasingly vital to day-to-day operations, allowing grocers to divert the workers they do have to customer-facing jobs.

“It’s more to augment some of the tedious and very manual tasks that associates don’t do well,” Badger’s Santiago said. “And then now add the labor issues on, and [those tasks are] getting done less and less, so they need the robots to help them there.”

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