Say hello to Marty the Robot. He’s here for your retail job.

If you should find yourself in one of the 172 stores in the Giant Food Stores grocery chain scattered across Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia this year, be sure to say hello to Marty, the funny-looking autonomous robot that will be wandering the aisles looking for dropped cantaloupes and broken mayonnaise jars and reporting them to its human masters.

Giant’s parent company, Ahold Delhaize USA, which is based in the Netherlands, also owns Martin’s and Stop & Shop stores, many of which will also be getting one of the nearly 500 robots the company plans to roll out this year. The robots will begin arriving “in waves” over the coming months, according to Giant, which expects to have the devices fully deployed in about six months.

Marty is pretty easy to spot. He/she/it is a grey robot on a wheeled black base, sporting colorful LED strips, a name tag, and two non-functioning, but adorable, googly eyes. Don’t be fooled, though; Marty can “see” you just fine. It’s equipped with eight cameras as well as “lidar” proximity sensors to prevent it bumping into shelves and shopping carts and unsteady old people. As the robot moves around the store, its cameras scan the floors continuously for anything that might cause someone to slip and fall.

If Marty sees something that looks like a hazard, it alerts customers around it by saying, “caution, hazard detected,” and sends an electronic alert to humans (located, in this case, in the low wage Philippines) who are monitoring the stores on tv screens to determine if it’s something about which they need to alert the store manager.

If this sounds a little bit trivial and underwhelming, Tim Rowland, CEO of Lexington, Ky-based Badger Technologies, a Jabil product line, which manufactures the Marty robots, assures customers that it is actually a big deal:

All retailers, but especially grocery stores, pay hefty premiums for insurance coverage, where there are numerous possibilities for hazardous conditions, from slippery floors to products falling off shelves. The most common hazards lead to time-consuming and costly slip-and-fall accidents, which can cost the retailer as much as $7.5 million (or even more) for a single incident, if the retailer is found at fault. Considering that these types of lawsuits have risen by more than 300 percent since 1980, retailers must take the correct precautions to provide a safe environment for their workers and customers alike.

Robo-retail comes of age

Giant is not the only large retailer learning to love robots. Roving robots from Bossa Nova Robotics now patrol 50 Wal Mart stores, collecting information, making sure pricing is up to date and shelf tags are accurate, identifying out of stock items and keeping track of overstock items that are now kept on the top shelf to reduce backroom trips for inventory replenishment.

The robot, which pairs artificial intelligence and machine learning, scans general merchandise departments once a day and visits food and consumables twice daily. Walmart expects to eventually roll out the robots to all 4,500 of its stores.

Walmart is also deploying Brain Corp’s BrainOS platform to automate more than 100 of the company’s fleet of commercial floor scrubbers across the United States. BrainOS-powered floor scrubbers allow store associates to quickly map a route during an initial training ride and then activate autonomous floor cleaning with the press of a single button. The robot uses multiple sensors to scan its surroundings for people and obstacles. Walmart expects to have 360 BrainOS-powered machines in stores by the end of its fiscal year, January 31, 2019.

Ocada, a British online-only supermarket has built a reputation in recent years designing highly automated warehouses and selling the tech to other grocery chains. When fully up and running, Ocado’s Andover operation in England will be able to process 3.5 million items or around 65,000 orders every week. But then all is not sweetness and light for Ocado.

The jobs hit list

Virtually all large retailers are experimenting with robots and automation for a variety of tasks that will be disruptive to workers. There are at least four things, according to Badger Technologies’ Tim Rowland, that robots can do, or soon will be able to do, in a retail environment better and faster and cheaper than human beings:

  1. Understand what’s out of stock. “In a grocery retail setting, 8 percent of the inventory isn’t properly placed, priced or is out of stock, which translates to an approximate 4 percent hit to their revenues. Today, this is accepted in grocery, because there hasn’t been a better way to get the data. But an autonomous robot could analyze the shelves through sensors and cameras to report this data in a consistent matter, so stocks can be replenished, stat.”
  2. Guarantee price integrity. “When a customer approaches the cashier ready to purchase and the prices in the POS don’t match the one on shelves, this equates to lost productivity and time, not to mention a negative customer experience. In addition, if a retailer is running a sales promotion, they need to ensure it is displayed correctly to encourage shoppers to make additional purchases. Again, when there are price integrity issues, retailers are looking at lost revenues.”
  3. Confirm product showcases. “Product set up is another challenge for retailers. They spend copious amounts of money in marketing to research and decide how products will be placed within the store…Planogram compliance ensures retailers can get one step closer to their ultimate goals: increase sales, improve overall profitability and keep consumers coming back. Shelf allocation has a huge impact on product sales, and if there is no compliance to the plan you made to maximize sales, it can have a major impact on your stores.”
  4. Identify hazardous conditions. Cue, Marty, the janitorial robot that began this post. The truth is, Marty can also perform the first three tasks too but the company has chosen not to emphasize those probably because they are more threatening to employees.

My take

As with this and the many thousands of automation and robot stories to come over the next few years, the rude but essential question is: If machines do all the work, what do humans do? We don’t really have a good answer yet. Maybe that’s why every press release announcing a breakthrough in automation seems to contain some obligatory weasel statement to the effect that “They aren’t replacing humans on staff, but rather freeing employees to interact more with customers and take on other work.”

We can only hope that the “other work” is not sitting in an overheated warehouse in the Phillipines watching CCTV of a grocery store in Scranton, Pa. all day to see if someone drops a carton of eggs. That’s not value add to the customer, that’s lawsuit avoidance for the store.


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