Can robots help prevent the empty grocery store shelves that we saw during the initial panic buying stage of this pandemic? Brad Bogolea, Co-Founder and CEO of Simbe Robotics, thinks so.
Simbe makes Tally, an autonomous shelf-scanning robot that roams grocery store aisles and uses computer vision and RFID to keep tabs on inventory. Simbe says Tally can spot inventory anomalies and provide analytics about purchasing and re-stocking insights.
Because Tally is a robot, it can spend its day going up and down aisles, giving store managers ongoing updates about product inventory. It is this near-real time snapshot of a store that Bogolea says can help retailers thwart outages during panic-buying sprees like the one we saw earlier in 2020, and also provide a better e-commerce buying experience for consumers.
Tally is currently being used in trials by grocers like Schnuck’s and Giant Eagle, as well as other partners across six countries. “We’ve had insights related to consumption patterns on shelves,” Bogolea told me by phone this week, “Especially in peak panic buying.”
Bogolea said the problem stores experienced during this panic buying was bad supply chain data. “Many of these stores operate on a replenishment system,” said Bogolea. He explained that “if there’s heavy distortion, retailers may assume a positive balance on-hand,” even though the products actually aren’t there.
The bad supply chain data, according to Bogolea, is a result of the manual inventory checks that stores currently carry out. If robots are used, shelf inventory count is more accurate and up to the minute (basically) because the robots can run multiple shelf audits throughout the day. More accurate data means that stores can respond faster when there is a sudden run on particular products to speed up replenishment.
But robots aren’t just helpful dealing with sudden pandemic buying. As the pandemic pushes people into record amounts of grocery e-commerce, there is a greater need for what the consumer sees online to match the availability in store. Anyone who’s ordered groceries online is familiar with ordering a basket of groceries only to get notifications prior to pickup or delivery that, whoops, that item was actually out of stock.
Bogolea said an additional benefit of using shelf-scanning robots is that they can free up human workers to do other tasks such as picking items for online orders and sanitizing the store and carts.
Simbe is not the only company making shelf-scanning robots. Walmart is expanding the use of Bossa Nova’s robots to 1,000 stores, and Woodman’s Markets is using Badger Technologies’ robots at its locations throughout the midwest.
Bogolea said that since the pandemic Simbe has seen an uptick in the amount of inbound interest in Tally. But despite all the promises of his company’s technology, Bogolea is the first to admit that adopting it is not like flipping a switch.
“Though there is stronger interest,” Bogolea said, “There’s a lot of work to deploy this type of technology.” As we learned from Albertsons at our Articulate food robotics summit last year, grocery stores, especially big chains, only adopt solutions that are already at scale.
Simbe has its own plans to scale up and build 1,000 robots over the coming year. Between it and all the other robotic players in the space, there’s a good chance you’ll be passing one in the grocery aisle in the not too distant future.