Anyone who has tried to order groceries online in the past month knows how backed up the supermarkets are. Amazon has implemented a waitlist for grocery delivery, ShopRite has virtual waiting rooms before you can actually shop for groceries, and Instacart is ratcheting its delivery force up to 750,000 workers to deal with demand.
One thing that could alleviate some of the stress being put on grocery e-commerce is robots, specifically the robotic fulfillment of online orders. Automated fulfillment centers use a series of totes and rails to to gather items for online grocery orders. These fulfillment centers are either built into the back of existing stores, or in standalone facilities.
Robots are ideal for this surge in grocery fulfillment for a few reasons. They are fast, precise, tireless, and, perhaps most important in our pandemic world, they don’t get sick.
Robotic fulfillment is still pretty nascent, with most retailers bringing robotic fulfillment online in just the past year. Given the crush of new e-commerce grocery shoppers and the need to fulfill all those orders, I spoke with Curt Avallone, the Chief Business Officer of Takeoff Technologies by phone last week. Takeoff builds automated fulfillment centers for a number of retailers including Albertsons, Loblaws, Sedano’s, and ShopRite.
“We have nine large grocery chains, six operational units and another 20 under construction,” Avallone told me. “The demand for online grocery is up 80 percent to over 100 percent at our facilities.” Additionally, Avallone said order volume is up. Where the average basket size used to be $150, that number is now pushing up towards $200 since the coronavirus outbreak.
Avallone also said that their current retail partners are ordering more micro-fulfillment centers as grocers anticipate a larger proportion of their business will be online.
“Speed is being requested by most of our retail partners, so they can do a better job of meeting customer demand,” Avallone said.
Takeoff clients are also looking to build more standalone facilities, rather than putting them in the backs of stores. “We still have a lot of facilities being attached,” Avallone said, “but there is a desire to move as quickly as possible. Sometimes standalone is faster.”
Part of the allure of standalone facilities is the ability to locate them away from traffic congestion and closer to major roads for easier routing. They can also be built without any complications from also needing to service in-store customers, and can operate 20 – 22 hours a day, and only require a crew of 12 people.
For retailers looking to add robotic fulfillment, Avallone says that Takeoff’s solution costs $3 – $4 million and takes between 12 and 16 weeks to be operational.
Takeoff isn’t the only company providing robotic fulfillment for retailers. Fabric (formerly Common Sense Robotics) is expanding its presence here in the U.S., Amazon is working with Dematic at its new standalone grocery stores, Kroger is building out standalone facilities powered by Ocado‘s technology, and Alert Innovation is working with Walmart.
With sheltering in place likely to be with us for a while, and at least one study showing that 60 percent of US shoppers are scared to go into grocery stores, online grocery’s sudden surge could become new normal. If so, we’ll need all kinds of tools, including robots, to help fulfill orders and the promise of online grocery shopping.