Robotics Get a Pandemic Boost

AI technology can assist with tasks, clean, scan and move products.

April 08, 2021

Robot in Convenience Store

SAN DIEGO—Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the retail industry is quickly bringing in new robotic technology, according to a new survey conducted by Brain Corp., an artificial intelligence company developing core robotics technology, and RetailWire.

Conducted last month, the survey underscores the growing value of robotic automation in the post-COVID-19 marketplace, the companies said in a news release. The potential for the technology includes assisting workers with a variety of tasks, from floor cleaning and shelf scanning, both in warehouses and in stores.

Here are some of the findings:

  • 73% of large retailers say factors that emerged during the pandemic increased the importance of using robotics in warehouses or distribution centers.
  • 64% of retailers (including 77% of large retailers) believe it is important to have a clear, executable and budgeted robotics automation strategy in place in 2021.
  • Nearly half of the respondents say they will take part in some kind of in-store robotics project within the next 18 months.
  • Other pandemic factors that influenced a change in thinking included the need for enhanced social distancing; the need to provide a safer, cleaner store for shoppers; and the need to improve on-shelf inventory availability.

During the pandemic, cleanliness became a major priority, and retailers worked to meet heightened consumer expectations. The survey indicates that increased standards for cleanliness are the new norm, and the majority (72%) of survey respondents do not expect much change in consumer expectations toward cleanliness even after vaccines are broadly distributed.

The survey also found that retailers want to use robotic solutions for in-store functions like collecting environmental data for improving customer experiences and automating tasks. This includes robotic applications for delivering goods from the back warehouse to store shelves (35%), pricing accuracy checks (35%), scanning shelves for stockouts (59%), order picking (47%) and more.

"The global pandemic brought the value of robotic automation sharply into focus for many retailers, and we now see them accelerating their deployment timelines to reap the advantages now and into the future. Autonomous robots are versatile productivity partners that help keep stores clean, generate additional hours for employees, and help improve in-store customer experiences," said Josh Baylin, senior director of strategy, Brain Corp.

The company said it achieved an increase of more than 300% in robotic deployments last year, many in retail stores, while generating an estimated 3.3 million hours in productivity for end customers.

RetailWire remarked that the new accelerated adoption of robotics in the survey "stunning" and "surprisingly large."

"These are not the kinds of numbers indicative of an emerging technology in an early phase of deployment in retail, but of a technology just a few short years from widespread adoption. In fact, as robotic technology gains a foothold in-store operations, broader benefits are likely to fuel future growth, such as the ability to capture granular, real-time data about products on shelves and customer buying patterns, monitor pricing and planogram compliance and keep tabs on out-of-stocks. Armed with this kind of data, retailers will be able to discover actionable insights, make smarter decisions and increase store productivity," according to the report.

The survey included 136 respondents in the retail industry, including retailers and wholesalers, brand marketers, retail consultants, tech solution providers and manufacturers. Full survey results are included in the free executive summary, “Robots in Retail: Examining the Autonomous Opportunity.”

AI adoption is not limited to businesses in North American. Yesterday, NACS Daily reported that Family Mart, the Japanese convenience chain, has opened its first cashierless store, which has a single employee to manage the store’s stock only. Customer purchases are automatically calculated, and then shoppers can pay by card, IC point card or cash in the designated payment area. Family Mart has announced it may open more for cashierless stores with self-checkout after evaluating customer feedback on the trial.

To see more ways that robotics are entering the foodservice world, check out “Robots Deliver” and “What's Minding the Store” in NACS Magazine.