|Robots in Aisle Two:|
Supermarket Survival Means Matching Amazon
The Amazon threat has forced the stodgy grocery industry to experiment with smart carts, dynamic price tags and in-store delivery warehouses.
By Matthew Boyle
Armed with algorithms, robotic warehouses and cashierless stores, Amazon.com Inc. is commonly seen as an existential threat to traditional grocers. In recent weeks alone, Amazon confirmed plans for a mainstream supermarket to complement its pricey Whole Foods Market chain, and the company plans to bring its automated checkout technology to full-size supermarkets.
It’s enough to make old-school grocers adopt the fetal position and brace for the retail apocalypse. They aren’t, of course. Animated by the threat and mindful that Amazon remains a tiny player in the $900 billion U.S. grocery market, they’re rushing to out-innovate the Seattle leviathan before it’s too late.
The advancements—being tested by everyone from mighty Walmart Inc. to small regional chains—include shelf-scanning robots, dynamic pricing software, smart carts, mobile-checkout systems and automated mini-warehouses in the back of stores. While shoppers should expect to see more technology in their local store, the innovations are less about dazzling customers and more about improving day-to-day operations and solving some of the thorniest problems facing food retailers today.
If the new technologies work on a broad scale—and that’s a big if—they could slow Amazon’s advance, boost profits, help fend off deep-discount chains like Aldi and Dollar General and diminish the treasure-hunting appeal of places like Costco and Trader Joe’s. Just 44% of food sales today go to traditional grocery stores, down from 90% 30 years ago, according to Inmar Analytics. Supermarkets are locked in a war of attrition, and right now, they’re losing.
“Competition has started to come from everywhere, and everybody has brought their game up,” says Keith Knopf, chief executive officer of Raley’s, a privately held operator of 130 stores in Northern California. “It’s clear that we have to become more agile.”
To do that, Knopf recently linked up with a former McKinsey & Co. consultant named David Moran, whose company, Eversight, sells predictive software that recommends price changes on items throughout the store. Historically, grocers changed price tags once a week largely in response to deals offered by local competitors, relying on whatever strategy worked in the past. But now shoppers can check offers instantly from their phones, so grocers need to move faster and look ahead, not backward.
Eversight works with brands like Coca-Cola and retailers like Walgreens on promotional offers, but Raley’s is the first retailer it’s working with on everyday pricing. The software analyzes millions of potential price variations across the chain and suggests several different alternatives for a given item — say, cooking oil — which are then tested in a few stores to see which one delivers the best results. The winning combination then gets rolled out more broadly.
Raley’s prices are already on the high end, so most of the experiments involve cutting prices, but not so much that profitability craters. So far the moves have boosted sales about 2% in the categories tested, and profits by 5% in some cases, enough to convince Raley’s to buy a small stake in Eversight.
“We have to learn to think and act differently,” Knopf says.
That doesn’t come naturally to the supermarket industry. Its leaders got where they are by squeezing pennies of profit out of bananas and bread, not through disruptive innovation. The last technology to really revolutionize food retail arrived in the 1970s and early 1980s with the advent of bar codes and checkout scanners.
“Retailers are risk averse, and don’t want to get into trouble,” says Jeff Smith, an entrepreneur who’s been selling software to big retailers for the past 20 years.
Playing it safe won’t work for supermarkets anymore, evidenced by the spate of bankruptcies that have claimed chains like Winn-Dixie, Tops and Fairway Market. For legacy retailers, the benefits of automation can outweigh the risks. In a Giant Eagle supermarket in Pittsburgh’s Fox Chapel neighborhood, a five-foot, four-inch-tall device nicknamed “Tally” traverses the aisles twice a day for an hour or two, scanning shelves for missing or misplaced items. It’s one of about 50 robots deployed at retailers in the U.S., Europe and the Middle East by Tally’s creator, Simbe Robotics. Walmart’s also rolling out shelf-scanning droids in 350 U.S. stores, made by another vendor called Bossa Nova.
Food retailers globally lose about $325 billion annually due to items being out of stock, according to researcher IHL Group. It’s the main reason why shoppers leave a store without buying anything, surveys say, and manually checking shelves can take several hours a day. Simbe’s founder and CEO Brad Bogolea wants to change that. On a recent Friday morning at the Giant Eagle in Pittsburgh, Tally discovered that Twix bars and some Febreze plug-in air fresheners were out of stock. Its 12 cameras can scan packaged goods at Giant Eagle but not fresh produce or the freezer aisle. At the Giant Eagle location where Tally has been deployed the longest, it has reduced out-of-stocks by 21%.
“It hasn’t revolutionized grocery yet,” store manager Ian Kalinowski says. “But we’ve just scratched the surface. There’s so much more we can do with it.” For example, it could reduce discrepancies that occur when the price of an item on the shelf differs from what gets rung up at checkout. When that happens now, customers get the item for free.
While store robots are hard to miss, most of the ground-breaking innovation is happening behind the scenes. In their backrooms, some food retailers are building automated warehouses that prepare online grocery orders, eliminating the need for the expensive armies of human shoppers who currently troll the aisles harvesting products for Instacart and other services. The technology is called micro-fulfillment, and analysts say it could be a game-changer for grocers, saving them time and money while providing faster service.
At a Stop & Shop supermarket near Hartford, Connecticut, one of the nation’s first micro-fulfillment centers (MFCs for short) opened at the end of last year. Ahold Delhaize, Stop & Shop’s Dutch-Belgian parent, carved out 12,000 square feet from the store during a recent remodel to make room for the MFC, which is operated by the retailer and with support from Takeoff Technologies. Through a glass window in a corner of the store, curious shoppers can get a glimpse at the automated mini-warehouse, where robots whoosh around grabbing cereal and soup. The system can handle up to 3,500 orders a week, although it’s nowhere near that level yet. Stop & Shop’s not alone: Walmart, Albertsons and others are also testing MFCs.
Micro-fulfillment is promising for e-commerce, but more than 90% of food shopping still takes place inside physical stores, where bottlenecks at the checkout counter have annoyed shoppers for decades. Self-checkout kiosks can speed things up, yet the machines are still glitchy, forcing employees to intervene. Canadian grocer Sobeys is testing smart shopping carts, equipped with cameras and scales to weigh produce, in one of its Ontario locations. Stores have been talking about smart carts for years, but have been stymied by the challenge of making them smart enough to identify every item in a store, while also tough enough to withstand Midwestern snow storms and parking-lot pileups.
Amazon’s checkout-free Go stores are complex and costly to operate, with scores of sensors and digital cameras pointed at all angles. Amazon had envisioned opening thousands of them in every major urban market, but seven years into their development, it has just 21. (Amazon does plan to license the technology that underpins Go to other retailers.) That’s created an opportunity for others to develop less expensive rival systems, including one from a Bay Area startup called Grabango.
Like Amazon, Grabango’s version of checkout-free shopping relies on ceiling-mounted cameras, but dispenses with the turnstiles used by Amazon. Purchases are tallied up on shoppers’ phones via a mobile app, or they can check out the old-fashioned way at the till, even paying with cash if they want. Grabango’s cameras also deter theft: “Shoplifting becomes impossible,” CEO Will Glaser said at a September industry conference, and the money saved there can cover the costs of installing the system within a year.
The dark side of all these fancy gadgets is their potential to reduce the amount of human labor supermarkets require. A May report from the management consultants at McKinsey & Co. found that about half of all retail activities can be automated with existing technology. Privately, retail staffers refer to the robots that scrub floors and scan shelves as “job stealers.” Retailers counter that the robots won’t replace humans; instead, they’ll allow workers to perform more less mundane tasks like assisting customers.
Some retailers don’t want robots cruising their aisles. “You won’t see robots in Target anytime soon,” says Brian Cornell, the cheap-chic retailer’s CEO. “The human touch still really matters.”
And in reality, the new technologies still require a human touch. Tally’s stock reports are useless unless there’s a person to find and replace the missing Twix bars. Checkout-free shopping doesn’t work for age-restricted items like tobacco and alcohol, as shoppers in Pittsburgh will soon learn when Grabango is deployed sometime next year at Giant Eagle’s GetGo convenience-store chain. Stop & Shop’s MFC, meanwhile, can’t pick frozen goods, which must be grabbed separately by employees.
What’s more, there’s no guarantee that any of these technologies will perform well enough to deliver the returns on investment that would justify broad deployments. Twenty years ago, tiny radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags promised to revolutionize retail by virtually eliminating out of stock items, reducing theft, and speeding customers through checkout. That hasn’t happened, though, due to the costs involved in universal deployment and the aforementioned aversion to risk.
Still, food retailers sense the urgency. “We have to be willing to dive head first into this,” Rob Mathews, Stop & Shop’s director of e-commerce strategy, says as employees lug robot-picked totes onto trucks for delivery to hungry Hartford residents. “Retail is under pressure,” McKinsey said in its report. “If you aren’t already implementing automation, you are falling behind.”