Recruiting of robotics and automation engineers is taking place at an accelerated rate by today’s top grocers. These retail stores need to uncover new ways to cut costs and allow associates to focus more directly on attending to shoppers’ needs in today’s competitive marketplace.
WAR FOR ROBOTICS AND AI TALENT ACCELERATING
This new recruitment of robotics is consistent with the worldwide demand for engineer job openings in the robot field. Total demand has far outstripped the current supply of qualified candidates. Now this robotic and AI recruiting has spilled over into the retail sector.
These recruitment findings are supported by five retailers who by example are employing robots today. The five retail companies in particular, which have been major robot employers, are Wal-Mart, Amazon, Ahold Delhaize USA, Hy-Vee and Kroger.
Robots have been recruited to improve efficiency and accuracy in operations from food safety all the way to the last mile of delivery in the retailing sector. This has led to shares of retailers being among the top performers in the U.S. stock market this year.
Robotics, AI and IoT technology in place in the retail sector, or being further developed, includes these areas of concentration:
• Automated Robotic product pickers
• Scan as you shop or Just Walk Out technology
• Out of stock notification
• Hazard detection like slip and fall
• Fresh product traceability
• Autonomous product delivery
Recruiters at Strategic Search Corporation as well as many of our other engineering and technical recruiting colleagues agree with these findings. These five retailers are adding to the strain of an already insatiable appetite for AI, robotics and IoT engineering, scientific and technical talent. Their novel applications of robot, artificial intelligence and Internet of Things automation applications have only served to accelerate the ‘WAR FOR TALENT’ I have mentioned in several recent radio appearances.
We expect this trend to only increase over time, straining the need for robotics and automation engineers even further. To assist you in more seamlessly recruiting of this talent, please review my 12 Commandments of Recruiting and apply a more proactive, year round recruitment strategy to recruit key talent even when you do not currently have a job opening.
WALMART DEMANDS MEET ROBOTIC AUTOMATION TECHNOLOGY
When online grocers ramp up ecommerce operations, it’s important that they recruit technology to make floor associates’ lives easier in the order-building and -fulfillment process.
Walmart, in partnership with North Billerica, MA based startup Alert Innovation has employed Alphabot to assist in their product picking process. This solution helps store pickers speed up the process of filling online grocery orders. Pickers use automated mobile carts working behind the scenes to pick products from the storage area. The carts then deliver the items to one of four picking stations where pickers consolidate them into customer orders. Thus pickers spend less time walking the aisles for center store items and more time selecting fresh items such as meat and produce.
“With the aid of Alphabot, our associates will have more time to focus on service and selling, the two things they often tell us are the most enjoyable part of the job, while the technology handles the more mundane, repeatable tasks,” said Mark Ibbotson, EVP of central operations, Walmart U.S., at the time of the launch. “Although this is a small pilot, we expect big things from it. We have a lot to learn about this new technology, and we’re excited about the possibilities of how we can use it to make the future of shopping — and working — even better.”
The robotics innovation is being introduced at Walmart’s Salem, N.H., Superstore as part of the location’s grand reopening. It should be up and running by the year’s end. A 20,000-square-foot extension was built onto the store to house the technology and serve as a dedicated grocery pickup point with drive-thru lanes for customers.
AMAZON COMBINES AI AND ROBOTICS TO JUST WALK OUT
Scan-as-you-shop technology is one of the hot new technologies for easing the shopping experience. The challenge here is pushing customers to do more work. They must download an app and scan every product they put into the basket. This is arguably why Walmart’s similar robotic solution failed.
Ecommerce giant Amazon sought to improve this earlier this year with the public debut of its Amazon Go format. This format employs artificial intelligence or AI and robotics “just walk out” technology. The technology creates a truly grab-and-go experience requiring no additional effort on the shopper’s part.
Here’s a quick overview of how it works. The store has recruited technology similar to that powering self-driving cars, employing AI, robotics, computer vision, sensor fusion and deep learning. The combined technology automatically detects when products are removed from or placed back on shelves.
To use the “just walk out” technology, patrons download a mobile app. At the store they check in, take what they want and merely walk out the door. Customers are charged for the products they take with them. No lines or barcodes need to be scanned to complete the process.
Amazon has since revealed new locations in San Francisco and Chicago after overcoming earlier technical difficulties in the technology. They have even launched a second location hometown Seattle, where the original is located.
OTHER RETAILERS ARE LOOKING AT JUST WALK OUT AS WELL
It’s not just Amazon seeking to open stores utilizing this technology. Albertsons Cos. could be the next major retailer to recruit “just walk out” technology similar to Amazon’s, according to business journal BoiseDev.com.
Specifically, Shane Sampson, chief marketing and merchandising officer of the Boise, Idaho-based retailer, discussed this in a May presentation. At the time he stated the retailer is experimenting with “Amazon Go-like technology” specifically for use with a “limited set of products, like Plated” meal kits and other prepared offerings. Customers would be able to grab what they want and leave the store without having to scan a barcode or go through traditional checkout.
AHOLD DELHAIZE USA AND OUT-OF-STOCK ROBOTS
It’s been said that recruiting googly eyes to any plain object makes it fun. This definitely was the case with Ahold Delhaize USA and Marty the Robot, whose purpose is to detect hazards, out-of-stocks and more.
Marty debuted in La Follette, TN this past April at a Food Lion store. The robot clean-sweeps the store a dozen times daily to identify slip-and-fall hazards on the floor. It alerts associates and also warns nearby shoppers.
The robot also scans shelves for out-of-stocks and ensures that shelf pricing is aligned with the front end registers. In the future, Marty’s technology may also be used to check and report temperatures allowing store managers to focus on other activities. The robot was developed by Lexington, KY based Badger Technologies.
Marty has reportedly become quite popular with selfie-snapping shoppers. Sporting the aforesaid googly eyes, a name tag, and a Shop & Earn ribbon, some patrons come by the store with friends and family just to see Marty. Numerous postings and selfie photographs with Marty have also appeared on social media.
The La Follette location’s robot isn’t the only one being used by an Ahold Delhaize USA banner. At the time of Marty’s debut, four Giant and Martin’s stores in Pennsylvania were using similar robots. The parent company has plans to roll out robots to all 171 Giant and Martin’s stores by year’s end.
MORE FOOD RETAILERS ADDING ROBOTS
Ahold Delhaize USA isn’t the first food retailer to test such robots in stores. Last July, St. Louis-based grocer Schnuck Markets partnered with San Francisco-based automation solutions provider Simbe Robotics and Irvine, Calif.-based Advantage Solutions’ digital technology division. They began piloting similar robots at three stores. The devices scanned shelves three times a day over a six-week period to ensure proper stocking and product placement.
Leveraging Advantage’s deep client relationships, the robot’s computer-vision technology captured and analyzed a wide range of data. This data was accumulated on behalf of three leading global manufacturers. The goals are: to better understand local market needs and how to optimize for the future; the root cause for the lack of product on shelf; visibility into share of shelf, price and promotion trends across categories, and more.
Minneapolis-based Target Corp. performed a similar pilot program in 2016. Last year Walmart filed a patent for drone technology to be used in its stores for similar purposes.
HY-VEE AND FRESH PRODUCE TRACEABILITY AND IOT
Midwestern grocer Hy-Vee is considering recruiting similar robotics technology. It is conducting a trial of a new solution to help automate farm-to-fork traceability of fresh produce coming to its stores.
Hy-Vee partnered with San Jose, CA based software company Zest Labs. The retailer recruited the Zest Fresh solution to make sure that it provides a vast assortment of high-quality natural, organic and locally sourced products. It also aids customers in understanding the sources of the food they purchase. The solution is claimed to reduce grocers’ waste from spoilage by more than 50 percent.
Zest Fresh uses Internet of Things (or IoT) to autonomously track and report product freshness from harvest to store in real time. This is in coordination with a premium supplier of seedless Holiday grapes. Leveraging what is said to be the industry’s first dynamic freshness metric — the ZIPR Code — the solution can give West Des Moines, Iowa-based Hy-Vee traceability data. It also provides continuous real-time visibility of the remaining freshness capacity of the grapes.
“We are excited to work with Zest Labs to determine how Zest Fresh can help both monitor and improve freshness while providing complete traceability through the cold supply chain,” said John Griesenbrock, Hy-Vee VP of produce and Health Markets. “With traceability support, we will become even more invested in bringing the freshest and highest-quality produce to our customers.”
KROGER AND AUTONOMOUS DELIVERY VEHICLES
The Kroger Co. is also considering recruitment of a robot and AI solution. Kroger is piloting a delivery program using unmanned road vehicles to fulfill online grocery orders.
The Cincinnati-based grocer has partnered with Nuro, the Mountain View, CA based developer of the world’s first fully unmanned road vehicle. Kroger is working to make the convenience of grocery delivery accessible and affordable for customers everywhere.
Through the innovative partnership, customers can place same-day delivery orders via Kroger’s ClickList grocery ecommerce system and Nuro’s mobile app. The orders will be fulfilled by Nuro’s fleet of on-road autonomous vehicles.
“We are incredibly excited about the potential of our innovative partnership with Nuro to bring the future of grocery delivery to customers today,” said Yael Cosset, Kroger’s chief digital officer. “As part of Restock Kroger, we have already started to redefine the grocery customer experience and expand the coverage area for our anything, anytime and anywhere offering. Partnering with Nuro, a leading technology company, will create customer value by providing Americans access to fast and convenient delivery at a fair price.”
The grocery ecommerce pilot marks the first application and deployment of Nuro’s hardware and software. Its market, Scottsdale, AZ, will begin receiving service in the fall.
“Unmanned delivery will be a game-changer for local commerce, and together with Kroger, we’re thrilled to test this new delivery experience to bring grocery customers new levels of convenience and value,” said Dave Ferguson, co-founder of Nuro. “Our safe, reliable and affordable service, combined with Kroger’s ubiquitous brand, is a powerful first step in our mission to accelerate the benefits of robotics for everyday life.”