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Taking Stock: The Benefits of Autonomous Shelf Scanning

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This article was written by Joshua Baylin, Brain Corp's Senior Director of Strategy. Published June 16, 2020. Editor’s Note: This is part of an ongoing blog series showcasing the latest developments from Brain Corp’s Innovation Lab, a proving ground for cutting edge robotic technology.

“Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion.”

—W. Edwards Deming, leading management thinker in the field of quality

BRA20-041_Innovation Lab Bug_cl_v3-01-1As data collection, processing, and storage become more automatable and less expensive, there is increasing momentum to collect and digitize environments that were previously entirely analog. Adding to this are advances in computer vision that help to convert this data into new, real-time business insights. This is a positive development for brick-and-mortar retailers, who continue to look for ways to remain competitive in the face of e-commerce pressure and new direct-to-consumer business models.

While retail analytics can be applied to a variety of business processes, few are more impactful than store operations, where granular insights into inventory conditions like product availability, planogram compliance, and pricing accuracy have top- and bottom-line implications. After all, how successful can a retailer be if its shelves are understocked, mis-stocked, or plagued by incorrect or outdated pricing? In the era of COVID-19, these conditions have worsened where certain product categories like toilet paper and Clorox wipes are wiped out, frustrating managers and customers alike.

Traditionally, maintaining on-shelf inventory standards has fallen into the hands of store employees who eyeball shelves to see what’s missing and use handheld devices that scan barcodes to check for pricing accuracy. If it sounds labor-intensive, that’s because it is. It’s also time-consuming and tedious. Most importantly, it’s inconsistent and inaccurate. And while the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted business as usual, it is now more vital than ever that retailers embrace repeatability, efficiency and flexibility to keep up with shifting consumer demands and maximize margins–with fewer staff.

What is Autonomous Shelf-Scanning?

As an autonomous robot moves up and down the aisles, it can take high-resolution photos that can be processed so that the location of where the photo is known and the products contained in that photo are matched against product and inventory items the retailer has in its stock. This unlocks a multitude of store operations use-cases for retailers including: automated data collection, store digitization, and improved shopping experience. 

Key Benefits of Autonomous Shelf-Scanning

It’s no secret the retail industry is embracing autonomy, with self-driving floor scrubbers rapidly gaining in popularity. Autonomous inventory delivery has also hit the retail floor as a tool to improve worker safety, reduce unnecessary risk, and boost store productivity. The latest breed of autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), the shelf-scanning robot, brings greater accuracy, consistency, and speed to data collection and inventory management activities, making it impossible for retailers to ignore.

These six reasons map out why autonomous shelf-scanning is vital to today’s retail operations:

Localizes Product and Full-Store Maps

By capturing digital images and creating maps of a retail environment (across aisles, stores, regions, and entire markets), robotic shelf scanners confirm products are located where they should be and provide promotion validation. How? These autonomous robots safely move throughout a designated area, taking photos of products, signage, and shelf sections while they scan. Scanning kicks off a streamlined process including stitching algorithms along with computer vision applications to develop whole-store maps that indicate where specific items are within the retail space.

Ensures Inventory Availability

The bane of retail staff is making sure inventory is in stock, in the right place, and with the correct price. This involves collecting data via digital images that inform insights and quickly drive necessary actions: reordering product, re-stocking shelves, and rethinking merchandising. Errors in inventory by humans account for an estimated 2-3% of lost revenue while out-of-stock inventory costs retailers nearly $450B annually in lost revenue. Robotic shelf scanners replace less accurate manual inventory checks to help minimize out-of-stocks much faster than ever before.

Validates Price Accuracy and Compliance

Autonomous shelf-scanning robots are designed to catch incorrect or missing prices and help prevent discrepancies between shelf prices and what rings up at the register. This saves staff time spent chasing down accurate price information, improves customer experience, and protects a retailer’s bottom line by preventing mistakes and lost customers.

Confirms Planogram Compliance

Planograms are an art and a science, and integral to the profitable operations of any retailer. That’s because upwards of 70% of consumers make purchase decisions at the shelf. Yet less than 40% of retailers have a way to measure and report on planogram compliance, which is another heavy lift, requiring both time and accuracy. Autonomous shelf scanning provides the imagery and data necessary for this type of reporting, whether for the retailer itself or their Consumer Product Goods (CPG) partners.

Improves Customer Experience

Shoppers want inventory that is in stock, in the right place, and with the correct price. Regular shelf scanning with an autonomous robot will ensure retailers have the necessary data at their fingertips to drive inventory management at scale so customers are satisfied and keep coming back.

Makes Picking Easier for Omnichannel Retail vs “Outsourced Shoppers”?

Shelter-in-place mandates due to the COVID-19 health crisis have amplified the popularity of pick-and-pack services and online grocery ordering businesses like Instacart. But even before the pandemic, keeping inventory insights current proved challenging. Autonomous shelf scanning captures real-time data that lets customers know what’s in stock and helps retailers better plan product placement to optimize the in-store pick paths for outsourced shoppers.

Interested in learning about Brain Corp’s technology for autonomous shelf scanning for your retail business? Contact us to speak with one of our robotics experts.