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Grocery Automation Is Accelerating Thanks to the Coronavirus

Grocery Automation Is Accelerating Thanks to the Coronavirus

We’ll never shop for groceries the same way again. The coronavirus pandemic has created an inflection point for automation technologies that will transform grocery shopping forever.

An AiFi grocery store in Shanghai. AiFi's autonomous grocery stores don't require human cashiers or checkouts (Image source: AiFi)

The next time you shop for groceries without worry over COVID-19 you may notice something different – a drastic increase in the level of automation.

Here in the US, the White House has warned citizens to avoid grocery shopping altogether unless absolutely essential. But if you’ve been acting like a good social distancing practitioner and tried to order groceries via Instacart in the last week you have may have noticed another problem beyond the slim pickings due to panic shopping – there weren’t any delivery people available. As demand for delivery services has skyrocketed in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic so have the health and safety concerns of workers.

Last week Instacart workers staged a strike, demanding better pay and health protections. Days later Whole Foods workers followed suit with a sick out over health concerns. Workers at Amazon’s infamous fulfillment centers (Amazon is the parent company of Whole Foods) also staged walkouts citing a lack of safety equipment and sick pay. One of Amazon’s centers in Detroit came under fire for failing to notify its warehouse workers that a co-worker had been diagnosed with COVID-19 – the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Amazon, for its part has pledged to implement new safety measures, including providing face masks to its workers. Instacart has also announced it will be providing safety kits to its delivery people.

These very real and serious concerns for human workers also present a serious hazard in the way of supply chains. If workers at other grocery outlets were to follow Whole Foods and Instacart workers’ example (or worse, be unable to work because of contracting the virus) it could lead to actual grocery shortages in a climate already being exacerbated by panic shopping.

But this crisis also presents an opportunity for the automation technologies that have slowly trickled into all levels of the grocery shopping experience. Automated self-checkouts that were once an option for rushed shoppers have become a go-to option preferred by stores and customers that want to keep human contact to a minimum. Some grocery chains, like Ralphs, are having employees sanitize self-checkouts after every use.

But there are other automation technologies that are right on the cusp. And the need for a faster grocery shopping experience with less human contact could be just what these technologies need to find their way into our grocery shopping experience now and forever.

The Autonomous Grocery Store

“There probably will be a boom, post-COVID-19, with a lot of innovation coming forward in the AI/automation space. However, it must be grounded in real engineering for these technologies to move past stat- of-the-art research or proof-of-concept,” Liu Yang, a PR specialist for AI technology company AiFi told Design News.

AiFi has developed a camera-based technology capable of completely automating the grocery shopping experience. Shoppers enter a store with a smartphone app and camera systems throughout the store track them and any items they pick off the shelves. Rather than go to a cashier or checkout, customers can simply walk right out of the door. The store tracks what you picked up and charges you for it immediately. AiFi is already seeing its technology employed for micro-shopping experiences with kiosks called “nanostores” being placed in airports and remote neighborhoods.

“Our store in Shanghai has been operating during the COVID-19 outbreak,” Yang said. “Retail store operators and food delivery workers are the lifelines in the outbreak. It is especially important to protect their health. The operators of this Shanghai store shared feedback with us that they feel safer working in a contactless, autonomous store.”

The severity of the COVID-19 crisis is making automation technology of key strategic importance when it comes to protecting both shoppers and store operators. “On one hand, shoppers can walk in, grab what they want, and go, without interactions with cashiers or baggers, or standing in line with social distancing in mind,” Yang said. “On the other hand, store operators can also be protected this way and work on other essential tasks like restocking”

One of AiFi's nanostores, designed for contactless, grab-and-go shopping. (Image source: AiFi)

A Virus-fueled Boom

José V. Aguerrevere, co-founder and CEO of Takeoff Technologies, said that even before the pandemic, automation technology had already been booming in the grocery industry. Takeoff has developed automated, locally-deployed “micro-fulfillment” centers (MFCs) that hold around 30,000 items and use collaborative robots to help fill delivery orders for grocery chains. The company has already opened MFCS in partnership with Albertsons, Ahold Delhaize USA, and Wakefern Food Corp.

“Prior to the virus, automated technologies, and particularly micro-fulfillment, were trending in the industry. The virus may have just accelerated it,” Aguerrevere told Design News.

Max Pedró, co-founder and president of Takeoff Technologies added, “There is still a lot that is unknown about this virus, but we do know that social distancing has been highlighted as the main course of action to take in order to protect yourself and others. We’re seeing this mirrored in a notable increase in online orders. Shoppers want to stay safe, and help keep others safe. They want to buy their groceries online.”

Takeoff’s MFCs can be operated by only a handful of people, and robots handle a majority of the legwork when fulfilling orders, meaning there is limited contact with grocery items. The MFCs can also be built in a dedicated area of the supermarket, away from shoppers on the store floor. “It is probably one of the safest ways to fulfill grocery orders in the current climate,” Aguerrevere said.

In Takeoff Technologies' microfulfillment centers robots do most of the heavy work with minimal human supervision. (Image source: Takeoff Technologies). 

Pedró told Design News that in addition to the benefits of automation, one major benefit of Takeoff’s solution is its inventory management and replenishment system. “Our system tracks order fulfillment rates, and most importantly, automatically generates purchase orders when we see stock is running low,” he said. “This translates to less ‘empty shelves’ or ‘out-of-stocks’ for shoppers. We can even replenish items in our MFC while we simultaneously fulfill orders.”

Pedro said his company’s automated fulfillment process is 10 times faster than manual picking, “Meaning we can fill these orders in a fraction of the time of traditional grocery shopping, or manual fulfillment. This helps keep things running smoothly even at times where there is a higher volume of orders than usual [such as during a pandemic].”

Price Check on Automation

AiFi’s Yang agreed that automation could see an acceleration in the trend towards adoption.

“The COVID-19 outbreak will accelerate trends that were already underway,” she said. “SARS led to the birth of Chinese eCommerce, including Alibaba and JD.com. This current outbreak may lead to contactless services in China, including food delivery services and autonomous stores like Alibaba’s self-checkout stores and AiFi’s AutoCheckout store.”

It’s true that grocery automation was well on the rise already. A 2019 report by ResearchAndMarkets projected the retail automation market, which includes grocery stores, to be worth $23.5 billion by 2026. Across the retail sector, there’s a demand for automated solutions for logistics such as inventory and workforce management.

The competition with online retail has also pushed brick and mortar stores to adopt technologies that will make the retail experience more efficient. “Rise in margin pressure is driving the retailers to opt for unique solutions that can differentiate them in intense competition and increase in global e-commerce activities across the globe have positively impacted the retail automation market,” the report states. Retail automation covers a wide range of technologies ranging from autonomous delivery vehicles, to robotics, cameras, and labeling technologies such as barcodes and RFID tags.

According to ResearchAndMarkets the supermarket segmented generated the highest revenue in the retail automation market in 2018. Analysts are predicting the near future to see considerable growth in automation in hypermarkets in particular (the Walmarts and Costcos of the world).

Governments and private companies all over the world are still working to cope and adapt with the with coronavirus. Within that however comes a risk of enacting measures that can be disjointed and inconsistent. “In the longer term, technology will be a critical tool in the war against the unexpected,” Yang said. “There will be increasing investment in autonomous technology, not just driven by retailers, but also as part of strategic digital infrastructure to support community resilience and the sanitation of cities...However, it is important to view all the automation technologies with less of the awe of moonshots, but rather with more scrutiny of how real-world problems are resolved, how troubleshooting can be handled in chaotic times like this and how people involved in the process are more empowered and protected.”

Takeoff’s Aguerrevere said, “While we are not happy about recent events, we are happy to be able to play a part in helping people safely access food. Our retail partners are fulfilling an essential role right now, and we are proud to play our part in supporting them. The value of automation is clearer now than ever before.”

Chris Wiltz is a Senior Editor at   Design News  covering emerging technologies including AI, VR/AR, blockchain, and robotics.

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