One of the most fascinating recent developments for retailers is the integration of commercial robots into the retail space. Robotics and AI are impacting nearly every industry causing disruption, reskilling of workers, and a new focus on change management for industry leaders.
Retail has long been fraught with concerns regarding employee retention, career paths within an organization, and working conditions, mainly scheduling concerns due to the hours retailers keep.
The pandemic ushered in major changes that were on the horizon but came more rapidly than most were anticipating. With these changes came people leaving the retail industry in record numbers, a switch from brick-and-mortar to online and omnichannel shopping, and a customer base that was no longer loyal to a brand or store—service and the ability to get necessary items became a top priority.
Retailers had to adjust quickly and look to innovative technology solutions to help address the challenges. In came robotic solutions powered by IoT technology to help streamline processes, increase productivity, and augment labor.
The robots being adopted by retailers are designed to perform a variety of tasks, from customer assistance to inventory management to cleaning.
Below is a list of the top commercial robotic solutions being adopted across the retail industry to help augment and improve operational efficiency and productivity.
According to Time, “Retailers lose an estimated $1.75 trillion a year globally due to out-of-stock, misplaced, or mispriced items.” Simbe Robotics designed Tally, an autonomous shelf-scanning robot, to address this issue.
Tally is a fully autonomous mobile robot that helps retailers take precise counts of inventory throughout a retail store. Tally uses “one of the world's most advanced” optical systems, according to the company, and is comprised of “autofocus technology, dynamic image stabilization, and HDR” to capture 2D and 3D images of the highest quality.
The sensors work to scan RFID tags (smart barcodes that identify the product) as well as physical inventory on shelves. Tally is used to track inventory including out-of-stock, inaccurately placed or priced items, help with accurate ordering timeframes and levels, and determine appropriate shelf space for items with high sell-through.
According to a case study with Schnuck Markets, headquartered in St. Louis Missouri, “just by having Tally in the store, stock conditions improved by at least 20% in those stores,” says Dave Steck VP of Infrastructure and Application Development for Schnuck Markets.
Tally’s real-time data helps retailers optimize inventory levels, reduce stockouts, and enhance overall supply chain efficiency and its ability to work autonomously allows store staff to focus on more strategic and customer-centric tasks.
AutoStore creates leading Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (AS/RS) for retailers. While not directly in-store, AutoStore revolutionizes the backend of retail by automating the order fulfillment process.
The system uses a grid of robots that move along a 3D structure to pick and pack products for online orders. The automated cube storage system can be added to any warehouse building and can maximize storage capabilities due to its design system that builds upwards and stacks cubes on top of each other.
With an automated inventory tracking system, the inventory moving robots shift the cubes to locate the required goods, and the company notes that the storage unit can adapt to seasonal and market demands without disrupting operational flow.
The company says on its website that the system has an “industry-leading reliability rate of 99.7%,” and with “built-in redundancy, and low maintenance costs, your operations will experience unprecedented smoothness and consistency.”
In one case study with SMC Corporation, a company that produces automatic control equipment for industries such as electronics, automotive, medical, food, packaging, and mining, the AutoStore System helped the company scale its business throughput by nearly 50%. This has allowed them to fulfill more same-day orders for customers, too.
“Had we not installed the AutoStore and the pick-and-pass operation and moved into this operation when we did, we would not have been able to hit the sales goals that we've had up to this point,” said Jennifer Fleming Director of Logistics at SMC.
The AutoStore cube system allows retailers to maximize warehouse space, better control order fulfillment, and increase efficiency and productivity. This not only improves warehouse operations, but it can help improve the customer experience by getting goods to customers faster.
ICE Cobotics is a cleaning technology and equipment company and a leader in providing autonomous solutions in the convenience store space. In 2022, the company launched Cobi 18, a compact autonomous floor scrubber designed to work in dynamic environments like retail stores.
The cobot (collaborative robot) works alongside employees and takes on repetitive and mundane tasks like floor cleaning. This allows staff to focus on other higher-order concerns like customer service, stocking shelves and coolers, and other tasks that require human dexterity and mindfulness.
Adopting autonomous floor cleaning solutions in retail environments allows retailers to improve the cleanliness of the store which directly impacts the customer experience. According to Chain Store Age, out of 1000 customers surveyed, “92% of respondents say a clean organized store environment increases the likelihood of purchase.”
RaceTrac, a leading convenience store chain in the US, added Cobi 18 to their travel center stores in 2023. “Leveraging technology to provide cleaner stores and free up our team members to assist guests in finding ‘whatever gets them going,’ is just another step RaceTrac is excited to take to make sure that every visit is a great experience,” said Mark Reese, the Vice President of Operations, Maintenance, and Store Support at RaceTrac.
By adding Cobi 18 to the team, retailers can improve cleaning consistency, ensure the job gets done even when unexpected staff shortages occur, and improve customer service by freeing up staff from the task of floor cleaning.
Starship Technologies, launched in 2014 by the co-founders of Skype, manufactures autonomous delivery robots that are designed to improve the last-mile delivery process for groceries, fast food, and parcels.
These small robots are designed to navigate sidewalks and neighborhood streets and move at a pace of 4 miles per hour, a fast-paced pedestrian walk. The self-driving robots use highly sophisticated sensors and twelve cameras to navigate around objects and people that may appear in their path.
The delivery robots provide secure delivery through a system that remains locked until they arrive at the specific delivery point and only the person who placed the order can unlock the robot, which they track through an app. For additional security purposes, if someone tries to tamper with or move the robot, a loud alarm is triggered as a deterrent.
The robots can carry up to three grocery bags worth of products and the company notes that its robots have made over 5 million autonomous deliveries and are working in over 60 locations globally.
One grocery store, Save Mart in Modesto, California, has been using the delivery robots since 2020 and has received positive feedback from the community according to a Forbes article.
“Since launching our service in Modesto in 2020, we’ve been excited to see the extremely positive reaction to the robots and how they were embraced as part of the local community,” said Ryan Tuohy, head of Starship sales and business development.
Starships’ delivery robots are having a big impact on grocery and food delivery and are sure to continue to play a role in how the markets develop in the future.
Fetch Robotics (acquired by Zebra Robotics in 2021) offers a range of robots, including CartConnect, an autonomous mobile robot system that is connected through WIFI and stores information in the Cloud.
CartConnect is designed for material handling and transport in retail warehouses and distribution centers. These robots attach to, pick up, and drop off mobile carts and collaborate with human workers, automating the movement of goods and optimizing the overall logistics process.
The company notes on its website that once CartConnect is hooked up to WIFI the robots can be up and running in just a few hours. Since they do not follow a fixed path, they are extremely flexible and can be adopted by any facility, as they are self-driving and navigate freely, making the system easy for any warehouse to adopt because it does not require an infrastructure remodel.
According to Fetch Robotics, using CartConnect “significantly reduces man travel time, walking distance and overall cycle of order time.”
DHL and Wartsila, in the Netherlands, deployed and piloted Fetch Robotics autonomous mobile robots in their warehouse to empower workers and achieve higher levels of safety and productivity.
According to a case study, the addition of CartConnect has “saved workers up to 32 km (19.8 miles) of walking per day.”
The implementation of autonomous mobile robots has revolutionized how retail warehouses function, the life of workers at the warehouses, and the delivery speed of goods to stores and customers, making them an efficient way to increase productivity and improve the wellbeing of staff.
Commercial robots are transforming the retail industry by automating routine tasks, enhancing customer interactions, and optimizing operational processes. As technology continues to advance, we can expect even more innovative robots to enter the retail space, further reshaping the way we shop and interact with stores.
ICE Cobotics is the leading technology and cleaning equipment company specializing in autonomous solutions available through an all-inclusive subscription. To find out more about Cobi 18, reach out to our Automation Specialists.