NICHOLASVILLE, KY - The COVID-19 pandemic quickly accelerated digital and automated trends in 2020, and according to Badger Technolgy’s chief executive officer, Tim Rowland, there’s a lot of learning from COVID-19 being applied to planning for next year.  

To help grocers plan on what to expect, Rowland released his top predictions for labor automation and robots in the industry: 

Expect robots to pinpoint exact product locations 

Autonomous robots took on more expansive roles in stores and warehouses during the pandemic, which is expected to gain momentum in 2021. Data-collecting robots shared real-time inventory updates and accurate product location data with mobile shopping apps, online order pickers and curbside pickup services along with in-store shoppers and employees. In large retail environments with hundreds of thousands of items, the ability to pinpoint products is a major productivity booster/timesaver. 

Multipurpose robots measure up as mavens of multitasking 

Autonomous robots can easily handle different duties, often referred to as “payloads,” which are programmed to address varying requirements, including but not limited to inventory management, hazard detection, security checks and surface disinfectants. In the future, retailers will have increased options for mixing/matching automated workflows to meet specific operational needs. 

COVID-19 proved there’s a limited supply in the world 

Major restock runs and a surge in online shopping quickly depleted shelf inventory, especially during the run on paper products early in the pandemic. Ensuring adequate supplies of “highflyers” requires integration of shelf-level data with backroom, warehouse and supply chain information. To avoid visible holes on shelves, retailers will increase the use of robotics to correlate inventory data with POS (point of sale), warehouse management and order management systems. 

Independent, regional grocers adopt robots with increased agility and speed 

Most grocers test any technology they bring into their stores before widespread deployments. In 2020, independents like Woodman’s Markets increased their deployments of in-store robots while larger entities like Walmart scaled back. Not only do independent, regional grocers have greater freedom and agility to trial new technologies, they’re also keen to automate wherever possible. 

Issues with labor shortages will continue 

As the labor market continues to tighten, retailers increasingly will look for ways to automate previously manual, mundane tasks. Multipurpose robots shine when it comes to oft-dreaded shelf scans, performing scans in hours instead of days and with up to 95% accuracy. Let’s face it, no employee wants to perform mind-numbing, tedious tasks, so let the robots do it—they’ll never get bored or distracted. 

Data-driven insights necessitate seamless integration  

The more comfortable retailers become with autonomous robots roaming store aisles safely alongside shoppers and employees, the faster they can redirect attention to what matters most—the ability to elevate customer satisfaction while increasing store revenue and profitability. To accomplish this, however, retailers need to connect the dots between shelf-scanning results and corresponding department, category, vendor, sell-through and pricing data.  

Planogram compliance goes beyond outside surveys and visualizations 

Another area where increased data collection and evaluation is warranted is the analysis and audits of end caps. Instead of relying on handshake agreements as well as the use of outside surveys and basic visualizations, data-collecting robots can share real-time updates by retail store, category and CPG management. Having critical trending data improves forecasting, replenishment prioritization and management of vendors with frequent stock issues. 

Sensors, drones and fixed cameras become the ideal robot accessory 

In 2021, it’s highly likely that autonomous robots will be teamed with other in-store technologies, such as fixed cameras, drones and all types of sensors, to enhance data-collection capabilities. It’s all about attaining real-time visibility, especially in those hard to reach, hard to see places. A bevy of sensors will enhance a robot’s “sensing” abilities, including detection of certain gases emitted when foods lose freshness or are stored improperly. 

5G will have a profound impact 

Investments—of substantial size—in the latest wireless technology are going to pay off in many aspects of retail as it promises to unleash new experiences. Mega-trending 5G is poised to deliver unheralded speed and bandwidth to ensure shared visibility of retail data without impacting other in-store network operations. Expect 5G to go from pilot to production phase throughout the retail industry. 

The M&A scene will remain active 

An increased frequency of mergers and acquisitions in the grocery sector will remain in the forecast. This is exemplified by the recent news of Ahold Delhaize acquiring FreshDirect along with HelloFresh’s acquisition of rival Factor75. Meanwhile, Food Lion secured FTC clearance to acquire 62 Bi-Lo/Harveys supermarket stores. As M&A activity continues, so does the need to integrate disparate data from different legacy systems to ensure end-to-end operational visibility.