The “future of retail” holds a lot of promise – and a lot of promises. During annual conferences and think tanks, the possibilities of a grocery industry dictated by artificial intelligence, robotics, and detailed consumer insights are regularly discussed with fervor. Entire presentations are spent talking through what it could be like to shop for groceries in the future.
There’s just one problem. The future is now.
Grocers aren’t waiting for retail-focused technology to emerge before testing new innovations in their stores, and, frankly, they can’t afford to. Retail giants are surging ahead, and making technology a non-negotiable for grocers everywhere.
Robotics are just one way in which grocers are showcasing their willingness to adapt to the current retail climate.
Who is using robots in their grocery stores?
The most notable use of robotics in the grocery industry thus far is Marty the robot. Marty is an in-store robot that wanders the aisles of Ahold Delhaize’s Stop & Shop and Giant Food Stores. He’s a tall, rectangular figure on wheels with large googly eyes and a small grin – meant to give off a human-like appearance and put surprised shoppers at ease. Marty’s main skill is to alert store managers to hazards like spills or items dropped on the floor. The grocer says that Marty allows them to cut down on employee hours and focus in on the smaller things that can take up so much of a store associate’s day like fallen price tags.
An article by New Food Economy said, “Ahold Delhaize has explicitly told shareholders that the company is investing in automation and artificial intelligence to supplement or even replace human labor.”
Walmart has also gotten into the robotics game, though at a far less intrusive level. The retail giant has introduced automatic floor scrubbing robots into some of their brick and mortar locations across the United States.
Pros and cons of robotics in grocery stores
Robotics is one of the more controversial 2020 trends. It’s not all benefits and value adds with this concept.
Adding robots into your store can position you as “worker-averse”, and quotes like the one from above about reducing employee hours don’t help. A recent Washington Post article says, “As Walmart turns to robots, it’s the human workers who feel like machines.”
Technology can be a great thing in retail, but it also has the potential to remove that undeniable human factor that is such a keystone of the traditional grocery experience. Today’s robots are industrial, creepy, and cold, and, even if they are given large eyes and a smile, they are not easily integrated into a grocery store that is determined to provide that neighborly feel.
It seems as though the large investment that it takes to integrate robotics in a grocery store have not paid off just yet. There aren’t many successful use cases of using these technological innovations – so far, they haven’t been able to do much for grocers other than alert them to things that store associates will still need to take care of. One Ahold Delhaize worker has been quoted as calling Marty, “a glorified Roomba.”
There are some potential benefits to robotics in the grocery industry when the technology catches up. Adding robots into your store that can effectively take care of smaller concerns can allow your employees to refocus on meaningful tasks like customer service and that oh-so-important person-to-person interaction. Saying “yes” to robots can also position your business as tech-forward and innovative, and add an element of modernity for your customers.
All this is to say that robotics definitely have a place in the grocery industry, and it’s likely that we’ll see more iterations on this concept in 2020. However, it may be a few more years before they proliferate throughout the country, and become a normal sight in the contemporary grocery store.