As the world continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic with varying degrees of success, the way we shop for groceries, clothes and other items has changed dramatically. Even as brick-and-mortar stores re-open for foot traffic, shoppers continue to buy items online, or shift their pickup to “buy online, pick up in store” and contact-free, curbside delivery.
For example, at a local Target near us, they’ve replaced the snack bar area with rows of shelves to store these pickup-in-store orders, but unfortunately the speed and efficiency of receiving your orders is not an improvement versus just walking through the store yourself and grabbing what you need on your “Target run.”
The problem lies in the method that physical stores are taking in filling orders - it’s the same that many distribution centers and warehouses employed when they didn’t have robots (or those warehouses that have yet to deploy them). A store receives an order, sending an associate out into the store to fill the order with a cart. The associate then returns to the front, where the items are placed on a shelf waiting for the customer to arrive.
For store associates, this is a lot of walking back and forth, making for a very dull and menial task. Who would really want to sign up for such a job? Some people sign up to do just that and become a personal shopper for companies like Instacart. They can be shopping on behalf of other people in a single store, or sign up to shop and deliver in their own car.
While this may supplement somebody’s income, in some ways it’s even worse from a public health perspective: not only are personal shoppers moving around the store all day, they may also go from location to location. It’s also far from fulfilling work, is incredibly inefficient and creates even more obstacles for other customers who decide to venture into the aisles.
Meanwhile, warehouses have adjusted to deal with labor shortages, high associate turnover and pandemic restrictions such as social distancing among workers, preparing for a potentially chaotic holiday shopping season. DHL recently adopted Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) to carry goods around their warehouses, changing how the work is organized:
“They don’t need to be pushing trolleys around a large warehouse, criss-crossing paths and having to pass each other down tight aisle spaces. (...) The tech-free alternative to maintaining social distancing is to implement a one-way system for warehouse workers. This only increases already-lengthy pick walks, reducing operational speed and productivity.”
--- Simon Woodward, Head of Accelerated Digitalisation and Innovation, UK & Ireland at DHL
Similar to how this problem was solved in warehouses, robots could provide the solution for many brick-and-mortar operations. Here’s how:
Human associates assigned to an area can do more meaningful tasks, such as assisting in-person customers in explaining products, or helping them locate items. They can also help restock shelf items, which is something that robots still cannot do. In other words, keep the humans interacting with humans, which they do best.
This would work for a number of existing robotics companies in the materials handling space, and could be combined with inventory scanning, spill detection or floor cleaning tasks.
For retail locations that are utilizing curbside pickup options for customers that don’t want to enter a store, robots can also be used. Instead of having associates walk outside to a car to bring an ordered item, those items can be placed inside a mobile delivery robot, similar to sidewalk delivery robots that deliver food or groceries.
This solution is not binary - humans will still be needed to fill large-item orders such as TVs and heavy equipment, and stores will need to decide whether adding robots into a customer-facing store can be accomplished without too many incidents (including people messing with the robots).
The pandemic has accelerated a massive disruption in how people shop for goods, and many companies are struggling to adjust to these shifts. Those that don’t adapt will likely fail. Observe how many shuttered Sears and J.C. Penney stores are now being turned into fulfillment centers by Amazon, or Walmart’s new store design that features better signage and integration with its smartphone app to let shoppers find items quicker.
The digital and physical world are converging. Robots are the next step in this evolution. The robotics companies that will solve the right problem at the right time will stand to reap the benefits, while others will fall by the wayside due to lack of product-market-fit or timing.
For third-party logistics companies managing hundreds of warehouses, omni-channel fulfillment has become the gold standard in recent years. Turning each retail location into a micro-fulfillment center with similar flexibility may be the ultimate differentiator in a post-pandemic world.