Are Robots in Grocery Stores Going to Solve Labor Market Troubles?
Photos Courtesy of Brain Corp and Simbe
The labor market is still far off from pre-pandemic levels and that’s put some retailers in a pinch. In fact, US employers are still 4 million jobs short of where they were in February 2020 and a record 4.5 million workers quit their jobs in November 2021.
A substantial number of store openings in 2021 is a positive sign heading into 2022, but retailers continue to work as hard as ever to attract new talent. Companies including Walmart, Macy’s, and CVS currently offer anything from flexible scheduling to additional training opportunities, and Walmart has gone as far as hiring 150,000 workers for last years’ holiday season and beyond.
But hiring new talent isn’t easy and retailers are looking for alternative solutions when it comes to staffing, fulfilling deliveries, stocking, and automating tasks. For many, autonomous store technology has enormous potential and robots are at the forefront of this innovation.
Robots are already making an impact
Whether we’d like to admit it or not, robots are here and they’re already making rounds at the grocers we use every day. Brian Corporations’ scrubbing robots, which can be found in roughly 600 Sam’s Club’s, are kind of like a “Go-Go-Gadget arm,” explained the tech company’s Vice President of Product and Marketing Josh Baylin.
But Baylin maintains that their robots are not taking desirable labor away from employees.
“We’ve really got to ask ourselves, and certainly we’re asking our customers, ‘is this really work that you want your folks doing?’ Over time, I think we’ll get far more comfortable with robots taking that dirty, dull, and dangerous work away,” Baylin revealed.
Furthermore, fewer available workers these days means that filling in capacity gaps is a plus.
“There’s just a tremendous amount of open roles,” he said.
And many, if not all in-store robots are supplemental, not a replacement for existing workers—another reason employees at Sam’s club should be excited about robotic technology, argued Todd Garner, vice president of in-club product management at Sam’s Club.
At Hy-Vee and Schnucks, a robot named Tally is keeping an eye on shelves. Simbe Robotics, the robotics company that developed Tally, told Morning Brew that their autonomous technology is capable of digitizing information about production location, availability, and price—thereby speeding up the supply chain. Tally covers the “physical retail blind spot,” said Simbe Robotics CEO Brad Bologea.
And there’s Marty, a robot by Badger Technologies that is being used as an “augmentation strategy for process improvements” around inventory, collecting data about stocks and pricing, as well as product location. As of 2019, Marty can be found in over 500 Giant Food Stores, Martin’s, and Stop & Shop locations owned by Ahold Delhaize USA.
“Bringing robotics and A.I. from a research lab to the sales floor has been a very exciting journey, and we were thrilled by the customer response in our pilot stores,” said Martin’s President Nicholas Bertram.
But how optimistic are consumers really about robots gliding through grocery isles?
Consumers aren’t quite warmed up to robots
According to a recent PSFK report, less than 25% of consumers believe robots would improve their shopping experience. As it appears, a certain amount of adjusting will need to take place for adults to feel comfortable approaching in-store robots.
Patrick Maturo, manager of store initiatives for Stop & Shop, has already come to terms with this adjustment period and made an effort to warm the public up to Marty.
“There was an adjustment period for our customers and associates as they got used to its presence in-store and got familiar with its functionality,” said Maturo.
Through works of fiction, video games, and even consumer tech like the Roomba, the anthropomorphization of robots has existed among the public for years. There is, however, reason to believe consumers would rather interact with human employees over robots presented as “big” or “scary.”
To lean away from “big scary robot[s],” Simbe created Tally with neutral colors, a sleek and slender frame, and the ability to get out of shoppers’ ways when needed. Simbe isn’t the only robotics company to build autonomous tech with consumer biases in mind, but a growing number of retailers are using robots on the back-end to fulfill orders instead of assisting in-store customers.
Ocado meets innovation
Inside an undisclosed warehouse in Groveland, FL, several hundred robots and Kroger employees work together to prepare online grocery orders. In a deal with British online grocer Ocado, Kroger is using autonomous technology to fill customers’ e-commerce orders in ways that supplement what human employees can accomplish.
As of 2022, Kroger has invested in warehouses in both Florida and Ohio. Each facility, or “shed,” costs the retailer around $55 million to build and is stocked with 31,000 different grocery, personal care, and household items. Suffice to say, there’s a lot riding on how successful they are.
Behind the scenes, Ocado’s software powers robots roughly the size of dishwasher glides on top of grids of plastic totes. To make life easier for Kroger employees, these robots run an intricate storage and retrieval system that allows workers to fill lanes with inventory and process customers’ orders.
Kroger is also just one out of the many grocers Ocado hopes to partner with over the years to come. Given that Ocado will enter newer and bigger warehouses, the team behind the robot is confident they can fine-tune the technology and practice on a wider range of goods.
Could these robots replace workers? Ocado department manager Alex Harvey doesn’t think so. “It would,” but he adds that any staff worker whose role was replaced would be retrained for another job around the facility. Ocado Co-founder Tim Steiner was a little more open about what the future of robots could look like in similar warehouses.
“Every human touch point is designed to one day be replaced by a robotic solution,” he said.
Steiner and his robotics team are well on their way to making that a reality, but a growing competition including Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Amazon Fresh just in the UK could make it hard to dominate the retail space indefinitely.
The future of autonomous technology
Still, robots require assistance from retail workers when it comes to charging, placement, transportation, and loading and unloading. According to Baylin, we’re still in the “early innings” in terms of full automation. The human element will be needed for a while and most workers can feel confident knowing their employment status is safe.
Baylin also noted that it’ll take both business owners and shoppers time to “leap across the chasm” to the world of robots, but that a recognition that we’re not so different from our technological creations may help mind the gap.
“I think we’re all cyborgs in a way, with our mobile phones,” he said. “We never had the ability to take a picture or measure a distance or see the temperature, do a stopwatch, right?
“All of these things sort of enable us to be superhuman. I think the robot is sort of just a modern extension of that.”
Nevertheless, the slow progression towards fully autonomous technology is underway and industry leaders will need to decide what’s best for their teams.