KANSAS CITY — Job openings in the United States are higher than they have ever been, according to recent numbers released by the US Labor Department. Many employers are struggling to find enough workers. 

“The pool of labor that is available to our retail clients is shrinking,” said David Wilkinson, president and general manager of Atlanta-based NCR Retail. “Retail is on the front line and workers don’t want to be exposed to potential risks.”

Not only are employees leaving the retail workforce due to COVID-19 exposure concerns, but because of the labor shortage employees are being asked to work more hours. Meanwhile, many shoppers are ordering their groceries online, leaving store employees to spend extra time picking increased online order volume.

Grocery retailers around the United States are feeling the impact of the labor shortage. St. Louis-based Schnuck Markets, for example, started reducing store hours and service hours of instore deli, meat and seafood counters in stores throughout Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin by one hour on Oct. 4. 

The retailer is offering team members retention and performance bonuses of up to $600 and holding companywide career fairs in search of more employees. Any new employees who stay on through Jan. 2, 2022, will be eligible for the retention bonus. The retailer is also increasing time off for employees around the holiday season. 

David Cook, who represents Schnucks employees in the region as president of UFCW Local 655, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the changes are welcome.

“I gotta be honest with you, my members are not calling down here saying, ‘I need more hours,’” he said. “What they’re saying is, ‘I’m tired.’ We’re coming up on 24 months of near-unlimited hours and probably more hours than somebody would optimally want to work.”

Wilkinson predicts this labor crisis isn’t going to go away quickly, and heightened investment in retail technology and labor automation will be a big piece of answering how retailers can deal with labor shortage going forward.

“Technology and automation is one of the key investments they need to make,” he said. “Everybody recognizes they need to invest in new and different technologies to help enable the productivity gains that are required to keep up with that labor crisis.”

Labor automation on the retail floor

Over the last year, a number of retailers have introduced robots that can help maintain the store floor. Most recently, West Des Moines, Iowa-based Hy-Vee, Inc. partnered with Simbe to roll out its autonomous inventory management and retail intelligence solution, Tally, to stores across Iowa, Nebraska and Missouri to improve the instore experience for customers and store teams. 

Tally enables retailers to improve the customer experience through more frequent and accurate inventory, pricing and promotion information. Tally autonomously scans tens of thousands of products across grocery, health and wellness aisles up to three times per day to ensure products are in stock, in the correct location, and correctly priced. Tally is a power tool and productivity driver for store teams, providing them with actionable insights that can reduce out-of-stocks by up to 30%, allowing teams to focus on more engaging tasks such as servicing customers. 

Tally can provide accurate order forecasting and help retailers optimize the store layout to support sales. This rich data, combined with Tally’s plug-and-play software platform and APIs, will provide Hy-Vee with unprecedented insights into the state of its stores, giving employees real-time recommendations to improve store operations and maximize customer satisfaction. 

Tally requires no infrastructure changes to the store environment to operate effectively and is designed to be unobtrusive to the shopper’s experience. The robot strategically navigates store aisles during normal store hours, safely maneuvering alongside shoppers and employees. 

“The pandemic truly created a ‘new normal’ for grocery that has illuminated the need for a greater frequency and fidelity of in-store data,” said Brad Bogolea, chief executive officer and co-founder of Simbe Robotics. “Hy-Vee is the perfect example of thoughtfully adopting technology to improve the store experience for both customers and their teams. As retailers face a growing number of considerations, Tally provides a cost-effective solution that ensures they can continue to provide excellent customer service and create a valuable, more enjoyable working environment for their employees.” 

Schnuck Markets also debuted Simbe’s Tally robot at all stores in late August, making the retailer the first grocer in the United States to utilize AI-powered inventory management technology at scale, according to the company.  

“By deploying Tally to all stores, we are fully operationalizing these insights into our supply chain and expanding our ability to leverage real-time data to make revenue impacting decisions,” said Dave Steck, Schnuck’s vice president of IT infrastructure and application development. “Tally has become an integral component of our stores, streamlining operations and ultimately creating a better store experience for our customers and teammates.” 

Meanwhile, an automated solution from Bader Technologies introduced at the start of 2021 is an ultraviolet (UV) disinfecting robot designed to combat COVID-19 and high-risk pathogens commonly found in grocery, foodservice and retail environments.  

The Badger UV Disinfect robot is equipped with advanced UV-C technology developed by UltraViolet Devices Inc. (UVDI). Early testing of the new robot with UVDI’s 254nm UV-C technology indicated 99% and greater inactivation of coronaviruses, E. coli, Salmonella enterica and Influenza A.  

Testing results showed that the robot can decontaminate 40,000 square feet in approximately two hours, enabling rapid disinfection of typical store spaces, including shelves, aisles and checkout areas.   

“Disinfecting retail stores is an ideal job for our robots as they can navigate aisles effortlessly,” said William 'BJ' Santiago, CEO of Badger Technologies. “We’re pleased to work with UVDI to help grocers and retailers quickly address COVID-19 contamination concerns while supporting long-term strategies for more effective infection prevention in retail environments.” 

Solutions to ease the pressure on employees

From self-checkout to online order management software, there are a lot of solutions grocers can look into to help make their employees’ day-to-day tasks easier.

NCR offers end-to-end enterprise software from the back office to the front end, from mobile to payments, loyalty and beyond. That includes inventory management, ecommerce, special offers, cloud-enabled reporting, virtualization and secure self-checkout and payment systems.

“We’re building a set of capabilities to run the store,” said Wilkinson. “We are a software company, and we have access to how consumers behave an interact with technology. We think about automating a lot of those functions and have a strong track-record in doing that.”

NCR can help retailers find a balance between self-checkout and employee-run checkout and creates a seamless transaction period no matter what method of checkout consumers are using — even those shopping online.

The company’s ecommerce solution aims to streamline the picking process on the employee end to lessen the time spent working on online order fulfillment. NCR’s picking app learns where products are throughout the store and combines multiple orders into one trip through the store, while mapping out the most optimized route to pick the items in the online orders.

Boston-based Anyline offers Mobile Data Capture technology for retail that plays a key supporting role in inventory management, stocking, order fulfillment and curbside pickup. With Anyline, grocers can improve data accuracy and enhance workforce optimization. 

The employee-facing side of the mobile app allows for optimization of the order picking processes using barcode scanning to deliver the enterprise-grade scanning capability employees need to pick orders efficiently and accurately and avoid including expired items. Employees can use their own mobile devices to use the app’s capabilities.

Team members can use the app to scan price tags and expiration dates when replenishing stock. In this way, produce reaching its expiration can be instantly identified, removing the risk of consumers picking up food or products which should no longer be on sale. Anyline partnered with Comerso to launch an anti-waste feature that enables retail workers to scan unsold products nearing expiration and identify whether they can be donated to charity, repurposed for further commercial use or recycled. 

“Grocers have a very careful balance to strike when it comes to providing the best customer experience while optimizing their operations through automation,” said Lukas Kinigadner, CEO and co-founder of Anyline. “Customer expectations have transformed over the past 18 months of the pandemic. Having the right tools in hand - such as smart devices - will enable them to provide a higher level of customer service than before.” 

Instant checkout platforms that skip instore lines

More and more instant checkout solutions are hitting the market that allow customers to skip the checkout line and self-checkout all together.

Most recently, Tel Aviv-based WalkOut introduced a device that can be retrofitted onto any shopping cart, utilizing AI, machine learning, edge computing, and high-precision cameras to identify each item placed into or removed from the cart.  

Instead of utilizing weight sensors that require legal-for-trade certification, as well as constant recalibration, WalkOut uses machine learning and computer vision technology. The mountable cart device’s multiple high-precision cameras, which utilize many different proprietary algorithms to accurately recognize products, identify the items as shoppers load or remove them with 99.2% accuracy, according to the company.  

Through a large touchscreen, the device also communicates with the customer to offer personalized recommendations, store navigation, supplementary product information, and relevant promotions based on the shopper’s history and location in the store.  

Earlier this year, Google Cloud added Tel Aviv-based Trigo to its partnership ecosystem with AI-powered solutions for autonomous shopping. Teams from both companies will partner to help retail businesses accelerate their digital transformations with AI-powered autonomous stores.  

“Technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and IoT are helping retailers deliver exciting, new experiences for consumers,” said Paul Tepfenhart, director of global retail solutions at Google Cloud. “We’re delighted that Trigo is bringing its retail solutions to Google Cloud, and we look forward to partnering with Trigo to help retailers accelerate their adoption of these capabilities.” 

Trigo’s privacy-by-design solution uses AI-powered computer vision technologies together with off-the-shelf hardware to retrofit existing grocery stores with autonomous capabilities. The company applies its algorithms to ceiling-mounted cameras which learn and upload data on shoppers' movements and product choices, enabling customers to simply walk into a store, pick up their desired items, and walk out without stopping at the checkout.

Tesco, a leading European grocer, has been working on a trial with Trigo. Trigo uses Google Cloud for part of the solution it provides Tesco. The company is also working with REWE, Germany’s second-largest grocery chain, on a cashier-less checkout store.

Taking automation all the way to the curb

As online orders continue to come pouring in, a number of US grocery retailers are turning to robots to help with the delivery process.

Keasby, NJ-based ShopRite (a banner owned by Wakefern Corp.) is currently testing robotic delivery at two stores under a partnership with Tortoise. The company’s remote-controlled, robotic carts are designed to meet growing consumer demand for faster home delivery.  

With an average speed of three miles per hour, the remote-controlled, zero-emissions carts typically travel on sidewalks or the side of the road and are teleoperated by trained remote drivers. The delivery cart can hold up to 150 pounds in four lockable containers that support ambient, chilled and frozen groceries. ShopRite customers are alerted to the arrival of the order via a text message that can also be used to unlock the cart to unload groceries.   

“Wakefern is our first customer on the east coast to use this innovative delivery system and we believe shoppers will love the convenience Tortoise offers,” said Dmitry Shevelenko, co-founder of Tortoise.  “Our electric cart allows ShopRite associates to focus less on the delivery of products and more on helping customers to improve the shopping experience.” 

In May, The Kroger Co. and Drone Express unveiled a pilot partnership to offer grocery delivery via autonomous drones. 

"Kroger's new drone delivery pilot is part of the evolution of our rapidly growing and innovative e-commerce business – which includes pickup, delivery, and ship — and reached more than $10 billion in sales in 2020," said Kroger's Jody Kalmbach, group vice president of product experience. "The pilot reinforces the importance of flexibility and immediacy to customers, powered by modern, cost-effective, and efficient last-mile solutions. We're excited to test drone delivery and gain insights that will inform expansion plans as well as future customer solutions." 

The pilot will offer customers flexibility as Drone Express technology allows package delivery to the location of a customer's smartphone, not only to a street address, meaning customers will be able to order delivery of picnic supplies to a park, sunscreen to the beach, or condiments to a backyard cookout, according to the company. 

Kroger is designing bundled product offerings ideal for meeting customer needs within the current weight limits for drone delivery, which is about five pounds. Using Kroger.com/DroneDelivery, customers can place orders and have eligible orders delivered within as little as 15 minutes.