When you think about technological advances in the retail sector, the grocery industry may not be the first area that comes to mind. However, the space offers numerous examples of how automation, AI, data science, and mobile trends can be applied to drive increased customer satisfaction, grow revenue, and gain a competitive advantage.
As Bloomberg’s Matthew Boyle put it, “Playing it safe won’t work for supermarkets anymore, evidenced by the spate of bankruptcies that have claimed chains like Winn-Dixie, Tops, and Fairway Market. For legacy retailers, the benefits of [emerging technology] can outweigh the risks.”
Home grocery delivery and curbside pickup of online orders is one way many stores are capitalizing on technology, but, as with all initiatives, this new model brings its fair share of challenges. Inventory availability, speed and efficiency of fulfillment, and minimal disruption of the in-store experience for traditional shoppers are among the problems grocers face in processing and preparing online orders.
In a recent Wall Street Journal piece, Walmart offered an in-depth look at its approach to these problems: a robotic fulfillment system that uses human labor and robot speed to pick more than 800 products per hour. Alphabot, as the system is known, is a 20,000 square foot automated warehouse that augments Walmart employees with a fleet of robots, resulting in an hourly collection rate 10 times faster than human associates alone could achieve.
Speaking with Bloomberg about the system Brian Rother, Walmart’s senior manager of pickup automation and digital operations, said, “This is going to be a transformative impact on Walmart’s supply chain. Alphabot is streamlining the order process, allowing associates to do their jobs with greater speed and efficiency.”
The current online grocery approach is time-intensive, often causing order mix-ups and increases store congestion, but, as the Bloomberg piece puts it, “Alphabot helps bring order to the process…Alphabot’s robotic carts quickly retrieve items and deliver them to employees at a picking station, who then pack and deliver them to customers’ cars in the parking lot.”
The Alphabot is currently in use in only one Walmart location, but the company has plans to construct systems at two additional stores, with many analysts pointing to the technology as the future of retail fulfillment. Of course, most smaller chains have significantly fewer resources than Walmart to invest in new technologies.But, as McKinsey put it in a recent report, “Retail is under pressure. If you aren’t already implementing automation, you are falling behind.”