The new automated fulfillment option will combine Instacart’s e-commerce ordering capabilities and human shoppers with Fabric’s robot-powered item-assembly process. Retailers can outfit this new system inside existing retail spaces or in dedicated warehouses. So customers will place a grocery order online, robots will assemble those items and Instacart shoppers will pack them up and either stage the completed order for curbside pickup or deliver it to the customer’s front door.
The company didn’t provide many details about implementing this new automated system, only saying it is the first phase of its “next-generation fulfillment initiative” and that it “plans to kick off early-stage concept pilots in partnership with Fabric and grocery retail partners over the coming year and beyond.”
Interest in automated fulfillment certainly accelerated over the past year because of the pandemic. Fears of COVID-19 had record amounts of people buying groceries online in the U.S. Those numbers have come down in recent months as the vaccines have rolled out and people feel more comfortable shopping in person. The latest data from Brick Meets Click shows that U.S. online grocery sales for pickup and delivery were $5.3 billion in June, down from its peak of $7.2 billion in June of 2020. If those numbers continue to trend down, will retailers still feel the pressing need to automate?
Big retailers like Albertsons, Kroger and Walmart have all doubled down on their own automated fulfillment plans over the past year. But as Grocery Dive has pointed out, there are still concerns around the efficacy of automated order fulfillment and whether it provides truly valuable productivity gains and return on investment. Now, instead of building their own automated infrastructure, smaller retailers could choose to offload that work to Instacart and Fabric, so we could see more grocers trying these systems out.