If it’s true that it takes three occurrences of something to make it a trend, then in-store robot fulfillment centers are now officially a trend in the U.S. Reuters reports Ahold Delhaize, the Netherlands-based grocery company, has partnered with Takeoff to roll out automated mini-warehouses at some of its retail locations, which include Food Lion, Stop & Shop and Giant Food.
The move makes Ahold Delhaize the third grocery giant to experiment with in-store robot fulfillment in recent months. In August, Walmart announced it would partner with Alert Innovation to build out an automated fulfillment center in its Salem, New Hampshire store. And just last week, Albertsons announced it was piloting its own robot fulfillment in partnership with Takeoff as well.
In-store robot fulfillment has the promise of speeding up delivery or pickup of groceries. Takeoff’s system usually takes up about an eighth of a store’s square footage. When an online grocery order comes into the store, a series of crates on racks and conveyor belts automatically shuttle food items to a human who assembles and bags them. The automated system could have a grocery order ready in as little as a half hour.
The fact that the fulfillment centers are built inside existing stores means that grocers don’t have to set up a separate distribution center with its own inventory (and accompanying systems). Since people typically shop from a grocer that is already in their neighborhood, delivery or curbside pick up of orders are that much closer–and thereby faster to reach their destination.
Online grocery shopping is set to hit $100 billion by 2022, and a recent study from the Retail Feedback Group showed that there is growing acceptance of purchasing fresh items such as produce and meats online, site unseen. This willingness to purchase even more food online from a generation of shoppers used to getting things on demand will make convenience and speed table stakes for anyone in the grocery game.
It should also be noted that the Ahold Delhaize deal marks the third publicly announced partnership for Takeoff. In addition to the aforementioned Albertsons, the startup is also working with Miami-area grocery chain Sedano’s. The company says it has agreements with five retailers and will have five of its fulfillment sites open in Q1 of 2019.
Not every grocer is jumping on the in-store bandwagon, however. Kroger upped its investment in U.K.-based Ocado earlier this year and has plans to build out twenty dedicated robot-driven grocery fulfillment centers over the coming years. The locations of the first three are set to be announced in the coming weeks.
None of these in-store automated systems are online yet, so it remains to be seen how they will be used and how much efficiency they will truly bring. But if they work as promised, today’s robot trend will be tomorrow’s new normal.