How robots could lend a hand to short-staffed grocers

The robots are here. And by that, we mean the grocery store around the corner. They scan the shelves, check for spills, clean the floors, make deliveries…should we continue?

But it’s not a complete takeover. Grocers — and the companies behind the bots — are exploring how they can be a solution to staffing shortages and a relief for multitasking associates.


Brain Corporation’s cleaning robots (found in all ~600 Sam’s Club locations) are sort of like a Go-Go-Gadget arm, said Josh Baylin, its vice president of product and marketing — a extension of the worker to help ‘extract more operating hours on a single person. When these robots capture the hours of human workers, they often perform less desirable tasks, he noted, such as cleaning or moving heavy inventory.

“We really have to ask ourselves, and we certainly ask our clients, is this really the job you want your people to do?” Baylin told Retail Brew. “Over time, I think we will become much more comfortable with robots doing this dirty, boring and dangerous work.”

But still, filling in the gaps in any capacity is a plus. “There’s just a tremendous amount of open roles. Anywhere you can provide opportunistic labor-creating automation, I think that’s a good opportunity,” he said..

  • This is especially true for small stores. Perhaps not such a high priority before, Badger Technologies – the mastermind behind hazard spotting (and wide-eyed) Marty – has seen a resurgence of interest in the technology amid a lack of manpower. , noted CEO BJ Santiago.

Add: These robots are also complementary. Starship Technologies’ delivery robots create more delivery capacity for grocers. And the aisle-scanning bot Tally does work that store associates can’t or don’t have time for, like scanning product location and availability, the Simbe CEO told us. Robotics, Brad Bologna.

Grocers “wear many, many hats,” from stocking to checkout, and Bologea said Tally allows retailers to “more optimally redeploy or refocus that work” by having a robot identify issues (like missing items) that staff members need to address.

  • Highlighting these action-oriented tasks also helps retailers take advantage of gig workers, who are more and more common in grocers, he noted.
  • Patrick Maturo, in-store initiatives manager for Stop & Stop, shared that sentiment with Marty, noting that its inventory scanning and hazard detection technology gives staff more time to interact with customers.

Robot crossing

But coworking and shopping alongside robots is pretty uncharted territory, and many haven’t gotten used to it yet – less than 25% of shoppers think “robots and other robotic systems” would improve their experience, according to a recent PSFK report – so they still need to be made more accessible.

At least as far as adults are concerned.

“There was an adjustment period for our customers and associates as they got used to its in-store presence and familiarized themselves with its functionality,” Maturo told us. “But now associates and clients are very used to Marty. The children certainly fell in love with him.

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  • Santiago said Giant and Martins Foods were actually selling a plush version of Marty in stores, and some even held birthday parties for the bot.

The same is true at Schnucks, Hoelscher said, with parents snapping photos of their kids with Tally and posting them to social media.

The real deal? The anthropomorphization of robots (i.e. the addition of googly eyes), as well as the consumerization of products like the Roomba, have helped shoppers feel more comfortable with them, Baylin noted. .

But efforts are underway to make these machines… well, less scary. Brain actually added image sound to its inventory bot to let consumers know when it was there and what it was doing, Baylin said.

To avoid creating “a big scary robot”, Simbe made Tally “sleek and slender” with neutral colors, Bologea explained, adding that the robot is made to give in and ultimately stay away from shoppers.

Badger’s robots also have human detection for safety purposes and huddle about 10 inches from the edge of a driveway so they don’t obstruct it while they scan, Santiago noted.

  • And, and, and: Employees are trained to explain the purpose of the robots to curious customers. (That would be us.)


Beyond reducing their scary factor, there is always room for improvement.

Most robots, for example, need a little help from their coworker friends, like loading, pressing a button to start, or loading and unloading them for deliveries. We’re still in the “early innings” of full automation, Baylin noted, and that human element will remain for some time.

“There are limits even to today’s standalone workflows. But I think we’re getting to a point where some of these activities are becoming more and more self-sustaining.

Retailers who design their locations to optimize for automation — something Baylin expects to happen more in the next five to 10 years — could help a lot.

  • In the meantime, since robots are one-size-fits-all, smaller units may become more common to accommodate local grocers with less floor space to spare.

And for every Kroger or Stop & Shop that supports the technology, there are some for which it hasn’t worked. In 2020, Walmart ended its five-year contract with inventory-checking robot maker Bossa Nova Technologies after introducing the robots to 500 stores.

  • Although the retail giant did not disclose its reasoning, sources says WSJ that increased traffic in the aisles caused by workers collecting online orders was a factor, as were shoppers’ reactions to a passing robot.

They are like us: It will take time for buyers and businesses to “jump the plunge” into the world of robots, just as it took a long time to come to the idea of ​​smartphones, Baylin said. One thing that might help? The realization that we may not be so different from robots after all.

“I think we’re all cyborgs in some way, with our cellphones,” he said. “We’ve never had the ability to take a picture or measure distance or see the temperature, make a stopwatch, have we? All of those things allow us to be kind of superhuman. I think the robot is kind of just a modern extension of that.

Find out how robots are helping grocers “stay competitive” here.

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