Expect Grocery Robots to Boost Online Shopping

Consumers still will visit grocery stores for fun foods, experiences.

February 11, 2020

WALTHAM, Mass.—Most online grocery orders come together the same way you’d shop yourself—except that grocery store workers walk the aisles picking out items for you. But a startup tech company outside Boston plans to speed up that process.

According to the Boston Globe, Takeoff Technologies has developed automated warehouses that can fit in the back of existing stores and assemble online orders of up to 60 items in mere minutes.

Online shopping has been growing rapidly since it first became available. But online grocery shopping has proved difficult to automate.

“This is the hardest category of them all,” says Max Pedró, the former Walmart executive who cofounded Takeoff Technologies four years ago. “You have a lot of items that are super heavy, and you need to do all the right things with temperature control. It’s a different animal.”

Takeoff’s plan calls for building a vertical grocery store with stacked shelving. Small robotic devices transport bins of grocery items to an employee, who stands at a terminal completing orders.

According to Pedró, Takeoff’s systems can hook into stores’ existing inventory, e-commerce and delivery programs, and even arrange delivery services for retailers that don’t currently offer them. Installing the system in an existing store typically costs $3 million to $4 million. Currently, some of the world’s largest supermarket chains are working with Takeoff to change how they fill online orders.

Meanwhile, other companies also are trying to tackle the problem. North Billerica’s Alert Innovation makes a similar “micro-fulfillment center,” which Walmart is testing in a Salem, New Hampshire store. Other competitors are Dematic, an Atlanta-based unit of Germany’s KION Group; the Israeli company Fabric and United Kingdom-based Ocado Group.

While online grocery services get a lot of media attention, they remain a small part of the grocery business. But Pedró believes grocery store automation is here to stay. If he’s right, stores will likely get smaller and have fewer traditional employees. But consumers aren’t likely to give up on grocery shopping completely.

According to Pedró, consumers will buy staples online and go to grocery stores for the fun part of food shopping. “You’ll have a coffee, and you’ll have flowers, and you can try out cheeses, and select your lamb chop,” he said. “But who gets excited about selecting toilet paper?”