There are some robots that have become completely normalized in our lives: ATMs, vending machines, even self-service kiosks at airports and transit stations. With COVID-19 significantly shifting the grocery retail landscape, could robots be the answer to many of the most impacted components of the grocery store experience?
The pandemic killed grocery store prepared foods nearly overnight. Already declining at 6.5% since 2018 and 54% since the beginning of the year, grocery retailers are now looking for ways to evolve this high-margin section within their stores. Heinens, a 19 store chain in the Midwest, is testing custom salad-making robot named Sally. Sally can hold up to 22 ingredients and makes 5 standard salads or custom bowls right there in the store for only $7. Heinen’s said they’re aiming for a totally touch-free experience thanks to an app and QR codes. Sally portions the ingredients exactly to nearly eliminate shrinkage, and offers premium ingredients like salmon and lobster which wouldn’t otherwise be found in a per-pound salad bar. The robot also delivers data to the store letting them know which ingredients are selling best and at what times.
The top retailer in the US is no stranger to the utility of technology in their stores. Last week, Walmart announced expansion of robots into 1000 stores to do simple but critical tasks like cleaning floors, scanning shelves, and unloading inventory. They say the robots are viewed as assistants rather than replacements for store employees, allowing the humans to focus on other tasks, particular focusing on improvements customer experience which is more critical than ever.
Woodman’s, an 18-store chain in Wisconsin, is a small but early-mover using automated technology in their stores. They use robots to lower operational costs and improve profits by completing time-intensive tasks like checking prices and detecting out-of-stocks with 95% efficiency. The robots can also help with grocery delivery by fulfilling online orders and helping store employees locate products on shelves.
In foodservice, SavorEat is an Israeli start-up that has developed 3D printing for plant-based meat, capable of “printing” a burger in just 6 minutes. The tech allows for superior heterogeneous texture and significant supply chain disruption by effectively becoming a “mini manufacturer” at the facility itself. The technology creates a meaningful reduction in food waste, and the “closed system” allows for zero-touch by printing and grilling the burger itself, which eliminates labor costs and cross-contamination.