Welcome to Future Store - © Metro AG

Are You Ready for the Robot Supermarket?

I noticed, the other day, that the Super-Mega Store in my neighbourhood had quietly taken out its old-fashioned, human-staffed Express cashes and reinstalled Self-Check stations – which had been eliminated in a recent store makeover. Are we getting automation whether we like it or not?

Smart Cart concept image - © Metro AGThe above still shot from a Metro AG promotional Video shows a Future Store
Smart Cart displaying a shopper’s previous purchases. Just one of many ways
the Smart Screen will interface with the Automated Supermarket of the future.

Automation has already come to the back end of the food supply chain. Sobey’s supermarkets have recently opened an automated distribution warehouse just north of Toronto and other chains are looking at it. Wall Mart leads the way in department store warehouse automation. But robotic handling of food products poses some additional challenges that regular-shaped, shock-packed dry goods don’t. Nevertheless, we’re getting ever-closer to the robotic grocery store!

The Pros…

Extreme automation offers benefits galore to supermarket proprietors. Not the least of those is the opportunity to get rid of a lot of the current staff positions it takes to run a conventional food store. No more wages, benefits, pensions or unions to deal with – a huge cost saving. But there’s also the information dimension to consider. Automated shelf replenishment systems will be guided by shelf depletion data from the shelves themselves. Purchasing planning will automatically re-order products in appropriate amounts as they sell. It goes on.

Shoppers will be asked to get used to the absence of human staff on the supermarket floor, relying instead on smart carts with touchscreen interfaces to find goods, compare prices and look up current specials. The carts, tapping into the store’s central computer network, will also be able to remember what any repeat shopper has purchased in the past and construct suggested shopping lists of items frequently purchased. If the system detects that a desired item is out of stock, it will suggest a comparable alternative. Automated checkouts – primitive versions of which are already in use in some supermarkets – will further streamline the shopping process.

The cons…

Do shoppers want to give up face time with human floor staff? Or is that a desirable integral part of their shopping experience, after all?

Will automation result in a reduced selection of products? Or will we have more items to chose from?

Will automation result in increased costs, even as fluctuations in currency and climate change throw supply and price curve balls at both producers and consumers?

I’m sure you’ll think of more…

The bottom line…

Will supermarket chains take the automation leap in hope that, amid irresistible cost savings, their customers will follow along, finding sufficient value in the new system to merit getting used to many changes that may be very uncomfortable to deal with, at least at first?

It appears that we”ll be finding out relatively soon, probably within the next 5 to 10 years. Are you ready?

~ Maggie J.

1 Comment

  1. So far Tally has only been rolled out in limited situations. Its creator, Simbe Robotics, says it can’t discuss the current in-store trials due to confidentiality agreements, but is ready for additional rollouts with other retailers.

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