Retail robotics are no longer science fiction. Automation is increasingly infiltrating the store, the warehouse, and the road as retailers pivot their strategies to become more customer-centric and to handle the inventory and fulfillment needs of today’s omnichannel orders.
“Retailers are moving toward a world of short-term replenishment; instead of replenishing in bulk weekly, some are moving to a faster, even daily approach,” J. P. Gownder, VP and principal analyst on Forrester’s CIO team told Forbes. “All of these changes require automation and intelligence.”
From inventory monitoring and picking in the warehouse, to providing information to shoppers and supporting last-mile fulfillment, automation implementations continue to rise. Retailers require new skills from their workforces, and employees are already being tasked with learning how to work with a influx of technology. Meanwhile, overall employment of retail sales workers is projected to grow 2% from 2016 to 2026, slower than the average for all occupations, according to The Bureau of Labor Statistics.
While concerns swell that automation could compound job losses in the retail industry, there’s no ignoring that many high profile retailers are testing out and investing in retail robotics. Here we take a look at three ways robotics are already being put to use in the retail industry.
Unlike Kroger’s self-driving pilot, the FedEx bot is designed to travel on sidewalks and along roadsides, safely delivering smaller shipments to customers’ homes and businesses. Next-gen technology allows the bot to navigate unpaved surfaces, curbs, and even steps for a door-to-door delivery experience.
Meanwhile, shoppers in Stop & Shop and Giant/Martin’s stores will see robots named Marty roaming the aisles. The grocer is rolling out nearly 500 of the robots from a partnership between Retail Business Services – the services company of parent company Ahold Delhaize USA – and Badger Technologies, after pilots that improved in-store efficiencies and safety. The in-store robots were tested and used to identify hazards, such as liquid, powder and bulk food item spills and provide reporting that enables corrective action. They reportedly help stores mitigate risk caused by such spills.
“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 Nicholas Bertram, president, Giant Food Stores. “Our associates have worked hard to bring this innovation to life with amazing partners.”
Major robot tests are underway in stores today, and they’ve already transformed supply chain operations in many retail warehouses and distribution centers. By 2025, it’s estimated that more than four million commercial robots will be installed in over 50,000 warehouses, up from just under 4,000 robotic warehouses in 2018, according to ABI Research. Innovations in computer vision, AI, deep learning, and robotic mechanics are all helping robots to become increasingly adept at performing traditionally harder-to-automate tasks.
“If advanced automation becomes possible for mid-size e-retailers, they will be able to fight back against the dominant players and also bring fulfillment operations back in-house, disrupting the relationship between retailers and 3PLs,” said Finill.
As retailers rapidly approach the dawn of the robots in retail, it’s important to consider how, when and if you will make use of this burgeoning tech.