COVID-19 has accelerated many trends already apparent within retail—not the least is the consumer’s dramatic shift to shopping online and at convenience and neighborhood stores.
With many industry observers stating the pandemic has triggered a fundamental “reset of retail,” new technologies including robotics, machine learning and AI also are being more rapidly deployed to enable operators to respond to the “new norm.”
Crucially, these solutions help enable contactless and, where applicable, safer, physical “store” environments. That’s key given a study by C&R Research that showed 60% of shoppers were fearful of shopping at a grocery store, and a similar number felt a sense of panic or anxiety when shopping.
Robotic solutions are being rolled out around the world—in Asia, Australia, Europe, South America and the U.S.
The crisis brought the future to us sooner.
In the United Kingdom, the Co-op has expanded same-day autonomous robot deliveries to more communities and eight stores following a trial. The retailer reports increased consumer demand for “robo-shopping,” with the number of customers using robot deliveries more than doubling since the start of the lockdown and the value of transactions increasing fourfold as shopping habits changed. Originally intended to offer additional choice, ease and convenience for time-pressed shoppers, the delivery service, which uses small battery-powered robotic containers on wheels from Starship Technologies, has become a “lifeline” for vulnerable or housebound members of the community.
Co-op also has focused on developing the range of products available through robot delivery, with shoppers now able to select from around 1,000 everyday essential products. Delivery fees range from £1.49 to £2.49 ($1.90 to $3.17), according to the distance traveled.
Jason Perry, Co-op head of online development, said, “Quality, ease and convenience is at the core of our approach, and we continue to innovate and expand access to our products online in order to offer greater flexibility and choice to meet consumer needs in our communities.”
Three retailers in Estonia—Coop Estonia, Selver and Prisma—have become some of the first grocers in the world to deploy Cleveron’s robotic grocery pickup solution, Cleveron 501, to hand over online orders without human-to-human contact.
The stand-alone units are installed in parking lots in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, and serve as quick and convenient drive-thrus. Customers place their grocery order online, choose a pickup time, receive an order code, and the grocery robot presents their order after the client enters the PIN on the user console.
The deployment comes as online shopping has seen unexpected growth due to the pandemic, and research shows that shopping habits will most likely not return to pre-COVID-19 behaviors. “We’ve always felt that e-commerce and online grocery shopping is the future, and that is why we created our grocery robot,” said Cleveron CEO Arno Kütt. “The crisis brought the future to us sooner. We had a product that was just what the grocers needed, and so we approached the Estonian grocery chains with an offer.”
Kütt said his company had seen a spike in interest for its automated click-and-collect delivery products, especially the grocery robots, “which are helping companies to serve their clients in this challenging situation businesses are facing.”
Coop Estonia was the first to deploy Cleveron 501. Development director Asko Pukk said AI solutions are an integral part of today’s commerce. “The stores are becoming smarter, and the grocery robot can change the grocery game significantly in the near future. Just think about it—several thousand items available for you to pick up from a solution taking up only 25 square meters. And the goods are stored in perfect condition both in the winter and summer [the units have two temperature zones for fresh and frozen goods]. It is an ideal solution for overpopulated areas where there is not enough space but also in rural areas that otherwise would not have such a selection available,” Pukk said.
With the onset of COVID-19, the need is even more urgent for a contactless and autonomous retail store where you can shop and feel safe.
While the Cleveron 501 also is being tested in Denmark, the U.K. and U.S., retail technology company AiFi reports it is on track to deploy 330 of its autonomous stores by the end of 2021. These include publicized partnerships with Albert Heijn, Carrefour, Loop Neighborhood and abka, plus other leading national and international grocery retailers.
The AiFi stores range from 800-square-foot convenience stores and travel shops to 10,000-square-foot stores, with the top platform offering a checkout-free experience, including flexible payment methods, an enhanced shopping journey design and operational tools for smart inventory management.
“With the onset of COVID-19, the need is even more urgent for a contactless and autonomous retail store where you can shop and feel safe in a physical environment,” said Steve Gu, CEO and co-founder, AiFi. “The deployed stores are operational or in advanced stages of testing. These stores have proven to be stable, accurate and popular among shoppers, who love the lightning speed and fluid retail experience.”
Walmart and Kroger are reaping the benefits of robotics and AI through their partnerships with Brain Corp, based in Amsterdam and San Diego, and its autonomous fleet of 10,000+ cleaning robots, now launching in Europe.
Driven by “the new value of clean,” U.S. retailers increased their usage of robotic floor scrubbers by 24% during April 2020, compared with the same month last year, and by 18% during the first four months of the year. Of that 18%, more than two-thirds (68%) occurred during daytime hours, according to Brain Corp network data.
“People want to see that stores are being cleaned, and our customers want to show the public that they are cleaning when their stores are open,” states Michel Spruijt, vice president and general manager, Brain Corp Europe.
Walmart now has 1,000 robotic units across its stores, sending out strong cleaning signals but also enabling store associates to focus on other tasks and spend more time serving customers.
“Technologies like this prove to be a valuable tool in the support of our retail associates,” said John Crecelius, Walmart’s senior vice president of central operations. “We are excited to expand upon our floor cleaning fleet as we continue to integrate the power of robotics and AI into our daily operations, freeing up associates to serve our customers better.” Retailers benefit from remote software updates and troubleshooting, plus a cleaning record enables stores to optimize operational processes and have proof of their efforts.
As well as targeting European retailers with its three robotic models—20-inch and 26-inch floor scrubbers plus a small vacuum—Brain Corp is developing new applications for the robots, including in-store deliveries and shelf scanning, eliminating more time-consuming and manual processes.
Within the logistics industry, meanwhile, startups offering innovative last-mile delivery services such as robots, drones, autonomous vehicles and shipments to parcel lockers, are winning the most venture capital funding, McKinsey reports. “This trend suggests that investors see an opportunity for unconventional last-mile services to complement companies with traditional delivery fleets as they anticipate the next normal in last-mile parcel delivery,” researchers state.
McKinsey cites Nuro as one unconventional startup. It designs, manufactures and operates delivery robots and is partnering with Kroger to deliver groceries for a fee via R1 driverless delivery vehicles in pilots in Arizona and Texas.
People want to see that stores are being cleaned, and our customers want to show the public that they are cleaning.
Another unconventional player is the Shenzhen-based Hive Box. Established in 2015, it now operates more than 150,000 parcel lockers located across China, which receive more than nine million parcels per day.
“There are a lot of machines that are being talked about. There are drones. There are droids: small robots walking the streets. Then there could be parcel lockers—not stationary ones, but ones that are mounted on top of autonomous vehicles and circulate 24/7 in residential areas,” said partner Ludwig Hausmann.
Partner Florian Neuhaus agreed: “What parcel delivery could look like is that you have a central place—maybe for all communities—and there’s a street, and you have one drop-off place. There will be robots that basically pick up the stuff from there, bring it to our homes, and put it in our fridges, because we’ll all own robots that make our bed, do the laundry, whatever.”
Given the recent advancements in robotic and autonomous tech in retail, that doesn’t sound too far-fetched.