4 Ways the Pandemic Changed Robots in Retail

As people sat at home during last year's safer-at-home orders — and added puzzles, new cooking gadgets and bottles of hand sanitizer to their digital shopping carts — behind the scenes, autonomous robots whizzed around warehouses assisting human employees to fill those record-breaking orders. Meanwhile, in some stores, other robots in retail were busy with inventory management, shelf scanning, aisle monitoring or scrubbing floors.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the desire — and in many cases, need — for robotics and automation to the top of retailers' priority lists. Even before COVID hit, companies were looking to increase spending on retail automation. In Jabil's 2020 Future of Retail Technology report, 90% of participants said they expected their spending on in-store automation would increase in the coming years.

of retailers expect to increase investments for in-store automation in the coming years.

The applications of robots are plenty in the retail industry. A report from the firm ABI Research found that 150,000 mobile robots could be deployed in brick-and-mortar stores by 2025; more than 4 million could be installed in 50,000 warehouses by the same year.

During the pandemic, though, the purpose of retail automation and robotics evolved alongside the rapidly changing business landscape. For many companies, robotics' main COVID-era warehouse role has been to help meet the booming demand for buy-online-pick-up-in-store (BOPIS) and online orders. Robots have also been a vital part of the retail industry's strategy to fight the virus itself. They now assist with in-store sanitation efforts that help customers feel safer when shopping in person.

Pre-pandemic, large companies were just beginning to invest in retail automation and robotics to help make stores and warehouses more efficient. Now, as consumer demands have shifted in drastic and unpredictable ways, demand for automation is sky-high. Here are some ways COVID-19 has changed the role of retail robotics.

Warehouse Robotics Meets Pandemic-Level Demand

E-commerce — from one-day delivery on Amazon Prime to shopping on your Instagram feed — was already the way of the future before the pandemic. But COVID slammed the accelerator on e-commerce, and it doesn't appear to be letting up anytime soon. While U.S. e-commerce sales peaked in the first quarter of 2021, up 47% from the same time in 2020, online sales still remained up roughly 10% year over year throughout 2021. However, we may be starting to see the impact of growing inflation on people's willingness to online shop, as e-commerce sales in the first quarter of 2022 were up only about 7% from 2021.

Over the course of the pandemic, health concerns led many dedicated in-person grocery shoppers to change their tune about trying delivery and pickup services. The data firm Statista found that grocery delivery and BOPIS sales grew from $1.2 billion in August 2019 to $5.3 billion in April 2020. That figure hasn't dipped below $5 billion since.

With this unprecedented increase in e-commerce and online grocery ordering, there simply haven't been enough human employees in stores and warehouses to keep up with demand. When COVID-19 first hit, shipping delays quickly followed — in fact, 18 months later they continue. Increased consumer demand is partially responsible, but so, too, is the need for social distancing between warehouse employees. Accordingly, the retail automation market quickly began to explode. In 2020, for the first time, more robots were sold to non-automotive companies than automotive companies thanks to the e-commerce boom. In the food and consumer goods sector, retail robot orders grew year-over-year by 56%. The pandemic has accelerated the timeline for companies who, before were in the early stages of using robotics — particularly in warehouses.

rate of year-over-year growth in retail robot sales in the food and consumer goods sector.

"With the changes in people's personal buying behavior caused by COVID, robots have been utilized in record numbers to allow for the fulfillment of orders in the e-commerce space while allowing for correct social distancing practices," Dean Elkins, the segment leader for handling at Yaskawa Motoman told Automation.com.

As consumer needs evolve, retailers are considering more automation and retail technology. In turn, retail technology original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) should consider working with a manufacturing partner that has engineering capabilities and supply chain orchestration solutions to help them scale and meet the skyrocketing demand for these robots.

After all — the next order is just a few taps away.

How Robots Assist People in the Warehouse

Online retailers that focus on just one type of good — say, activewear or linens — can still have thousands of individual SKUs. Now picture a retailer like Amazon or Target, which carry an unfathomable number of products. Assigning a human to fetch products to fill a customer's order from various ends of a football-field sized warehouse is probably not the best use of that employee's time.

To that end, most of the retail robotics currently in use within warehouses today are one of three types - pick assistant with autonomous mobile robot (PA-AMR), autonomous mobile robot (AMR) and automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS).

So far, goods-to-person robots like AMRs, which bring groups of orders to the person responsible for packing them, and collaborative picking robots (PA-AMRs) have proven to be most popular. We expect to see double-digit growth in the adaptation of AMRs in warehouses in the short- to medium-term, with PA-AMRs serving as a good first step for companies looking to try automation. With both, the robots cover much of the warehouse ground previously walked by employees, saving them time and energy they can apply to more important tasks. During the height of the pandemic, when every second was especially precious, having robots take over high-labor, low-efficiency tasks was more important than ever.

New Fulfillment Centers - Small Footprint, Big Output

Amazon changed the retail game in 2005 when it launched unlimited two-day shipping through its Prime program. Then, it upped the ante in 2019 with a one-day shipping promise. Depending on your location, you can now often get your order the same day you place it. Consumers have been conditioned to receive goods on demand. They want their orders in their hands two hours from now, not three days.

To meet customer expectations, combat record-breaking supply shortages and solve last-mile delivery issues, retailers have turned to opening micro-fulfillment centers. Either standalone buildings or within traditional brick-and-mortar stores, these centers bring businesses closer to consumers, shorten the lead time from click to delivery and enable the effective function of omnichannel services like grocery delivery and BOPIS.

With robotic systems, retailers can turn parts of their stock room into a mini warehouse. Companies like Fabric are creating robotic warehouses that would have once taken up city blocks to fit inside whatever space retailers have available. By picking stock for online or BOPIS orders from these centers, employees are keeping retail store aisles clear for customers and helping maintain social distancing. In some cases, the space now occupied by the micro-fulfillment center might be unusable without robots that are smaller and more compact than humans.

Micro-fulfillment centers work best for small orders that are focused on convenience and speed. For online grocery orders that are meant to replace a weekly stock-up trip to the physical store, retailers are turning to larger consumer fulfillment centers. These larger, traditional warehouse-sized buildings are centrally located, have a wider product selection than micro-fulfillment centers and also use robotic systems to assist with picking products.

Both of these facilities are just more examples of how robots have helped retailers adjust to the new demands and challenges the pandemic has created.

Robots on the Sales Floor

Over the past decade, retailers have anticipated introducing robots into their stores, and they've had a pretty clear idea of how in-store robotics would be used. For example, in 2019, Badger Technologies rolled out nearly 500 robots for front-of-store-use in hazard detection at Ahold Delhaize USA brands Stop & Shop and Giants/Martin's. Badger Technologies' newest autonomous retail robot can also conduct planogram compliance checks, inventory price accuracy and floor safety today.

Jabil's omnichannel retail survey shows almost one-third of participants were considering or already implementing robotics or automation in some form to improve in-store customer satisfaction and experiences. An additional 20% said they were looking at robotics to improve store operations and efficiencies.

of retailers are considering or implementing robotics or automation to improve in-store customer experiences.

While those reasons are certainly still valid, COVID has presented more pressing reasons for retailers to introduce in-store robots. In a 2021 survey conducted by Brain Corp and Retail Wire, 73% of large retailers said the importance of using robotics in warehouses or distribution centers has increased due to factors that emerged during the pandemic. Those factors included the need to provide a safer, cleaner store for shoppers; the need for enhanced social distancing; and the need to improve on-shelf inventory availability.

of large retailers said the importance of using robotics in warehouses or distribution centers has increased due to the pandemic (Source: RetailWire and Brain Corp).

Still, at least one retail giant who had already introduced in-store robots found itself reevaluating the technology. In late 2020, Walmart ended a partnership in which it had rolled out 1,000 robots to stores across the country. But the company says it is still focused on automation in its warehouses and for picking and delivering orders. Earlier this year, the company announced it would use robots in its local fulfillment centers, built within or in addition to existing stores, to retrieve products.

As seen in this case, retailers are still learning how to most effectively work robotic systems into their workflow. It's important that they first begin by identifying their "why" and let that lead their strategy. This "why" as it relates to retail robots may vary from company to company. A retail technology solutions provider can serve as a good partner in helping you determine the best options to implement in your facilities.

In the immediate future, it appears that robots supporting retailers' omnichannel offerings, like BOPIS, is the future of in-store automation. Additionally, as robots expand into micro-fulfillment centers and even filling orders within areas of traditional brick and mortars, it opens more avenues for research and development into how robots can safely interact with humans within the retail environment as they pick for e-comm, BOPIS and other omnichannel orders.

Finally, some retailers are using robots to disinfect the air and surfaces with Ultraviolet (UV) light, including Badger™ UV Disinfect robots. COVID also hastened the adoption of autonomous scrubbers, freeing up employees to clean other surfaces, restock products or fill orders. The company Brain Corp says it saw usage of its floor-cleaning technology increase 24% in April 2020 over the same period in 2019. With 60% of shoppers reporting fear of shopping in the grocery store in a C+R survey, visible cleanliness is one way robots can help retailers show their dedication to the customer experience.

What Challenges & Opportunities Exist for OEMs in Retail Robotics?

As it turns out, the toilet paper shortages we all experienced in the spring of 2020 were the canary in the supply chain coal mine. Odds are, at some point since the pandemic started, something you've ordered was delayed or backordered due to supply chain shortages.

Just as retailers had to adapt to unexpected shifts in pandemic-induced demand, so too did the robotics company and OEMs responsible for building the retail robots and automated systems. OEMs were forced to scale rapidly and grow their capabilities to meet the dramatically increased need for retail robotics. Supply chain issues made this already difficult task even more challenging, as 87% of retail OEMs who participated in a recent Jabil-sponsored survey said they experienced component shortages, limited materials or other sourcing issues in the past year.

of retail technology OEMs have experienced component shortages, limited materials or other sourcing issues in the past year.

The shortages affecting OEMs had impacts down the line on retailers, who have become dependent on automated systems. Not having the robotic systems they need — or not having the ability to quickly fix issues with their existing robotic systems — could delay orders and harm retailers' relationships with customers.

To keep the retail supply chain running smoothly, OEMs should strive to diversify their part supply strategy and create a design that allows for flexible specs outside of their system's core artificial intelligence (AI) and technology architecture. Sourcing issues are expected to last for the foreseeable future, so it's vital to have a plan that will keep production lines moving even if your typical supply lines become interrupted.

Also, a more local supply chain is a more resilient one. As discussed, micro-fulfillment centers created at or next to existing retail locations can use robots to assist and enhance human work, keeping product moving and customers happy. OEMs could take their cues from retailers and begin investing in localization efforts, including the use of supply chain network optimization applications, to reduce the potential impact of logistical hurdles — pandemic-induced or not.

For consumers, shopping has never been easier. With just a few clicks, nearly any product they can imagine will show up at their front door in a matter of days, if not hours or minutes. With the assistance of robotic automation and autonomous mobile robots, retailers can keep the packages moving. For that to happen, though, retail automation OEMs must ensure they have the right manufacturing and supply chain partner.

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