August 18, 2020

Webinar Recap: Robotics, Retail and Replenishment



Grocery businesses are experiencing unprecedented challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and are looking to new technologies, such as robotics, to help better manage store operations.

That was one of the key takeaways among panelists on a recent Progressive Grocer webinar entitled, “Robotics, Retail and Replenishment: Winning Strategies for In-Store Excellence.” The well-attended event featured speakers John Black, SVP of New Product Development at Brain Corp, and Dan Johnson, CEO of Dane Technologies, which designs and manufactures retail equipment.

Moderator Abby Kleckler, of Progressive Grocer, kicked things off with a surprising look at the growth of online retail in the wake of the health crisis: consumers spent $7.2 billion on groceries and essential goods in June 2020, up from $1.2 billion in June of last year, according to researcher Brick Meets Clicks. This exponential growth is forcing grocers to re-examine their ability to offer online order fulfillment.

Another challenge, Kleckler noted, is the complex county and state regulations designed to keep customers and employees safe. This new operational guidance, along with tight margins, rising costs and labor shortages, are putting retail and grocery brands on the hot seat, with many looking to automation and robotics to solve these issues and stay one step ahead of the competition.

Here are three other takeaways from the webinar:

1. Commercial Robots Lighten the Load: The use of robots isn’t new. In fact, robots have been a staple in warehouses and the manufacturing “workforce” for decades. But those robots could only operate in tightly controlled environments, and required extensive infrastructure costs. Today, retailers are leaning on a new breed of robotic solution, called an autonomous mobile robot (AMR), that are designed to navigate safely within high-traffic locations, such as grocery stores. AMRs require no custom infrastructure, no specialized training and take care of dull, repetitive, and labor-intensive tasks such as floor cleaning and delivery, freeing employees to focus on higher value tasks, such as sanitizing high-contact surfaces, restocking, and engaging with customers.

“Retail has been in the process of transforming for some time due to labor costs, market pressures and margin pressures. All of these issues are driving the increased adoption of robotics, which is well underway,” Black said.

2. Introducing Autonomous Delivery Tugs: According to Johnson, the next major AMR innovation within retail is a new application called the autonomous delivery tug. The tug, powered by BrainOS, a cloud-connected AI software platform, fills a gaping hole in the retail supply chain – delivering products and merchandise from the back warehouse all the way to the store shelves and customers. Currently, grocers and retailers rely on an army of workers to shuttle products back and forth across the store all day, requiring team members walk as much as 10-12 miles per day, Johnson said. With the ability to move 1,000 pounds of goods at a time, the delivery tug eliminates the need for human-powered transport, decreasing costs associated with labor, worker’s compensation, and staff turnover. Based on those factors, Johnson estimated that grocers could save up to $100K per year per location, depending on the size of the store, number of workers, and other key factors. And that’s not counting additional use cases for supporting online order fulfillment, and transporting trash and recyclables.

“It doesn’t take a mathematician to determine that robotics in retail are providing a very meaningful and compelling return on investment,” Johnson said. “Brands around the world are adopting the technology to increase safety, efficiency, and capture better ROI.”

3. One Platform, Many Robots: Black said the adoption of robotics isn’t a matter of if, but when, especially with the recent health crisis bringing the value of automation and robotics sharply into focus. According to ABI Research, which covers the global robotics industry, the number of AMR shipments within retail will rise to 290k in the next decade. To prepare for the inevitably of robots, innovative retailers need to start thinking about a unified robotics foundation, Black said. He showed how the cloud-connected BrainOS software platform can seamlessly support a variety of applications – such as delivery tugs, floor scrubbers, vacuum sweepers, and shelf-scanning units. BrainOS reduces operational management complexity in multi-robot environments by providing centralized fleet management, data hosting and reporting, standardized user interfaces and workflow, and built-in safety and security features. This is preferable to a siloed approach to robotics, managing multiple vendors and system, he added.

No matter the approach, the panelists agreed that automation is the future of retail. Robots help to create a safer and cleaner environment for customers and employees, as well as provide better shopping experiences. AMRs also allow retail businesses to tackle tough challenges related to labor, risk, and changing buying habits both now and into the future.

For more information, watch a recording of the webinar, or download a copy of Brain Corp’s newest eBook, “How Robots Solve Retail’s Restocking Challenge.”

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Photo by michal dziekonski on Unsplash
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