KANSAS CITY - Over the last few years, the innovation in labor automation technology has been steadily increasingly as technology has further integrated into society. When coronavirus hit the United States in early March, the pandemic quickly enunciated the need for technology that can help grocers keep items on the shelves, maintain a clean environment, create contactless solutions, and help handle the influx of online orders.

The idea behind labor automation isn’t replacing employees with robots and other technology solutions, pointed out Di Di Chan, the president and co-founder of New York-based FutureProof Retail, it’s about efficiency.

“We’ve seen that some of our clients are looking at labor and looking at how to make it more efficient,” said Chan. “Where efficiency can be made is by creating a more service-oriented environment.”

The right labor automation technology solutions will improve a customer’s experience, noted Tony Koenigsknecht, chief operating officer and co-founder of Chicago-based Freeosk Inc.

“Retailers really need to be focused on how we can bring things that drive customer experience that’s heightened,” he said. “That’s either we can do it better with automation or we can do things we have never been able to do with the labor model with automation.”

When looking at which segments to begin automating in the grocery retail environment, Curt Avallone, chief business officer for Takeoff Technologies, a micro-fulfillment solutions company based in Waltham, Mass., recommended focusing on the areas that have the greatest consumer demand.

If a store has difficulty keeping up with its eCommerce fulfillment, then a micro-fulfillment center might be the place to start. Whereas if a retailer is noticing increased out of stock items, then a robotic solution to help keep track of inventory on the floor might be the best fit.

“There’s demand in the grocery space for solutions such as self-checkout and eCommerce, a significance that is being driven by people not wanting to go to the store because of the risk of getting COVID,” Avallone said.

Freeosk: A contactless sampling and information center


Traditional instore food samples were quick to go when COVID-19 entered the scene and have not been quick to return. A survey conducted by Freeosk found that over 50% of shoppers are weary about getting a sample from another person anytime soon, but 76% indicated they would be willing to get a sample from a touchless kiosk.

“We rolled out some new features on the kiosk to make them completely contactless where previously we’ve had some contact engagement on the touchscreen,” said Koenigsknecht. “Now shoppers can still engage and get a hygienic sample without having to do anything except scan their membership card or phone.”

Freeosk’s platform can feature a wide variety of shelf-stable brands. While the kiosk can only hold one product type at a time, the kiosk’s video tool can cross-merchandise items from the fresh and frozen departments to help drive sales all over the store.

Freeosk is a turnkey solution, so once the kiosk is placed in the store retailers simply communicate the types of products and brands they’re interested in spotlighting and Freeosk finds the fitting brand, running a new campaign each week.

“Freeosk is not a vending machine, it’s a marketing platform,” Koenigsknecht said. “We’ve got a proprietary dispensing system that was designed with the thought in mind of running week-long campaigns for different brands with a different sample each week.”  

Solutions for streamlining eCommerce fulfillment

The pandemic has caused grocery eCommerce to expand rapidly, and the online shopping medium is expected to continue accelerating, said Avallone of Takeoff Technologies.

When increased online orders started coming in when the pandemic hit, Avallone noticed that retailers were seeing two main issues: they didn’t have enough employees to quickly put together the influx of online orders and oftentimes items that were out of stock weren’t being communicated to the online ordering system quickly enough, creating partially unfilled orders. Those issues are where Takeoff’s micro-fulfillment centers can help.

“We have an automated robotic unit as a part of our solution,” Avallone said. “We can pick items in three to five seconds with that automation versus picking that same item on the floor, which would probably take 60 to 90 seconds. So there’s more than a 10-fold increase of productivity.”

Takeoff’s micro fulfillment center is typically placed in a 10,000-square-foot section of a retailer’s store environment, and the most sold SKU’s (usually about 14,000 to 15,000 items) on the grocer’s eCommerce platform are placed in the micro-fulfillment center. Grocers can use their own eCommerce websites to integrate with Takeoff’s technology, or Takeoff can help retailers design an eCommerce platform. 

The items are then available for easy picking on a fast-pick racetrack that packs items into temperature-controlled tubs that are equipped with bags for an employee to pack. Products are usually only touched once by human hands, and they are held in a temperature controlled environment until ready for pick or delivery. Avallone said that typically employees only have to go to the store floor to grab items about 3% of the time.

“It’s a low-cost solution that usually runs for $3-4 million and can handle $30-40 billion in sales,” Avallone said. “For the first time grocers can look at this automated solution and say I can spend less and potentially have a higher return on investment, which is groundbreaking for eGrocery.”

San Francisco-based Starship Technologies recently teamed up with Modesto, Calif.-based Save Mart Companies to bring automated grocery delivery robots to deliver online orders to customers.

The self-driving robots, each of which can carry up to 20 pounds of groceries – the equivalent of about three shopping bags – and can travel up to four miles roundtrip, provide a safe, low-cost and contactless delivery alternative for Save Mart shoppers, allowing them to order from thousands of items via the Starship app platform for on-demand delivery straight to their home. 

“We continually seek new ways to serve our communities and offer solutions for efficient, safe and healthy grocery shopping,” said Robert Cady, senior director of marketing strategy and analytics for Save Mart Companies. “Through our partnership with Starship Technologies, Save Mart is pleased once again to lead the way in customer service and innovation.” 

Starship’s robots have completed over 500,000 autonomous deliveries and crossed more than five million streets. The robots move at pedestrian speed and use a combination of machine learning, artificial intelligence and sensors to travel on sidewalks and navigate around obstacles. 

Computer vision-based navigation helps the robots map their environment to the nearest inch, and the robots can cross streets, climb curbs, travel at night and operate in both rain and snow. A team of humans can also monitor their progress remotely and can take control at a moment’s notice. 

“With the onset of the pandemic, our service became increasingly important to thousands of residents in communities across the US,” said Ryan Tuohy, senior vice president of business development at Starship Technologies. “Working together with The Save Mart Companies, we are able to provide a safe, convenient and well-priced delivery option for tens of thousands of residents.” 

Solutions for the retail floor: scanning and cleaning technology

When shoppers walk into their grocery store, they want to be able to find the items they came for, said Brad Bogolea, CEO of San Francisco-based Simbe Robotics. “We live in a world where consumers expect almost instant gratification. When we go into the store, we want what we’re looking for to be on the shelf.”

After COVID-19 hit in March and April, supermarket shelves quickly began emptying, and highlighted the relevance of staying on top of what inventory is on the shelves, what’s in the stock room, and what’s out of stock completely, noted Tim Rowland, CEO of Nicholasville, Ky.-based Badger Technologies.

Both Simbe Robotics and Badger Technologies offer solutions to help prevent those out-of-stocks from occurring, along with a host of other integrated solutions that help make the retail environment run efficiently.

Simbe’s robot Tally is designed to be ready to patrol the store and start scanning shelves on day one. The autonomous robot uses 2D and 3D imaging to scan products on the shelves noting which items are out of stock, which items have incorrect pricing, and ensuring that products are where they are supposed to be on the shelves.

On average, Tally does a full run-through of the store floor three times a day, updating data and insights into a cloud-based system easy for employees to access. When an item is out of stock on the shelf the robot can be programmed to know if there is more stock of that item in storage. If there is, Tally can notify the retailer to restock that item. If the item is completely out of stock, the robot can connect with a third-party supplier and place an order. Tally’s data can be mined to track inventory patterns and help retailers be more aware of exactly when items need to be ordered and stocked.

Badger Technologies offers several tiers of autonomous robot models designed to patrol the footprint of a grocer’s retail store. Like Simbe’s Tally, some of Badger’s robots can scan shelves for out-of-stock items, price issues and incorrect product placement. In addition to shelf scanning, Badger’s robots can also detect potential hazards on the floor such as spills and send a notification out to the custodial team to get potential hazards off the floor right away.

The base model from Badger just focuses on floor hazards, and the second model focuses on shelf scanning. Badger’s third model can both scan the shelves for out-of-place stock and watch the floor for potential hazards, and the company’s fourth solution is designed for inspection of warehouses.

When the pandemic hit, San Diego-based Brain Corp saw a 24% year-over-year increase in use of the company’s robotic solutions, said Joshua Baylin, Brain Corp’s senior director of strategy.

Brain Corp’s solutions include autonomous floor care machines that can detect spills and scrub the floors in the retail environment. The machines can also be modified with shelf-scanning technology to keep track of inventory on shelves. Brain Corp’s delivery robots can also bring items out of the stock room and to the main floor. Like the robotic solutions from Simbe and Badger, Brain Corp’s autonomous robots can run the store any time of day and are programmed to navigate around customers in their environment.

“COVID drove home that robots can have a huge roll in mitigating some of the work that workers are doing and unlocking some new productivity inside those environments,” Baylin said, noting that day time usage for Brain Corp’s robots is up 133% year-over-year. “Retailers have become more comfortable with robots in their environments and I would imagine that that trend is going to continue over the next few years as the robots get even better in the environment.”

Rowland echoes Baylin and noted that he expects labor automation technology to expand over the next few years as retailers and consumers alike get used to the idea.

“There’s a point where robots make a lot of sense,” said Rowland. “It’s going to take a few years for people to get comfortable shopping around this automation doing things in the background, but I can imagine a day when robots are working together checking shelves, floors, scrubbing floors and dragging pallets out of the back room.”

Scan-and-go technology for fast and efficient checkout

FutureProof Retail’s scan-and-go technology is designed to give shoppers a further customer-service oriented experience in the grocery store. Not only does the checkout solution allow for more employees to be available to help shoppers on the floor, but the app customers use for checkout allows shoppers to immediately review their instore experience and send messages to the retailer, opening up a digital customer service platform.

FutureProof’s mobile checkout works like this: shoppers download an app that is under their retailer’s brand and run by FutureProof’s software; shoppers can then go through the store and scan items (both fresh and shelf-stable) as they pull them off the shelves and put them into their cart; when shoppers have all of their items they go to a designated mobile checkout area where they scan a QR code from the app and where they can bag their items (if they didn’t while they were shopping) and leave the store.

FutureProof’s software can also be tailored to offer additional benefits outside of the scan-and-go technology, Chan said. “We know that one size doesn’t fit all,” she notFutureProofed. “We can connect a lot of different technology in stores already, such as loyalty systems for example.”

Chan noted that FutureProof has a variety of partnerships to add on different features to their software such as patron navigation that can help shoppers locate the items they’re looking for as they shop; personalized product recommendations on the app for shoppers; and loss and prevention security features that can include gates and sensors that recognize when an item has not been paid for.

“If you have a solution or feature you want to add for more efficiency, that solution can work with [our software], whether you want to make checkout faster or want help with inventory management, or whatever feature, ” Chan said. “As long as the solution you want to work with is open so that it can connect with other solutions and providers, we can allow retailers to customize because our technology is designed for an open ecosystem.”

This story was featured in the November issue of Supermarket Perimeter. Click here for the full issue.