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Six advantages of automated supermarkets

Article by James Gore
automated supermarket

When talking about automation in the B2C sector, the immediate train of thought leads towards businesses like Amazon or Wayfair, and on the SME side, ecommerce firms. Businesses who possess and operate little in the way of bricks-and-mortar establishments for customers to visit, but with substantial warehouse space that is crying out to work faster and more effectively with the help of robotic automation.

However, automation is not only something for ecommerce. As robotic technology advances, more and more sectors of the economy will be impacted, and more direct B2C outlets, like supermarkets, will soon be on the frontline of that change. To see why such things are extremely advantageous to food retailers everywhere, here are six big advantages that will be experienced by supermarkets as they automate.

1. Precision deliveries to stores

Forces like warehouse efficiencies and economics of scale mean that for most supermarkets their deliveries consist of large pallets of single items. With a manually operated warehouse, more precision-selected containers are simply not practicable. It would take too much time, effort, and energy.

Automation makes the precision deliveries option much more palatable. The speed and accuracy of robotic picking mean your lorries can be shifting containers filled with only exactly what is needed. Rather than huge loads containing a single item type, far broader ranges can be packed and sent to the supermarket. This creates huge opportunities for reductions in waste, broader product selections, and tailored item ranges.

2. Eliminate the BOPIS middle man

The “by-online-pickup-in-store” or BOPIS model has been one that has served supermarkets very well for many years. However, it has always been an additional responsibility that has been loaded onto staff working in the retail outlets, rather than a job given to the warehouse workers. Not only is this inefficent for stock reasons, it also clogs up retail space with staff busily collecting shoppers orders. Automation can change that.

The same kind of precision collection options that will make single-item pallets irrelevant in the future, can also redirect your BOPIS provision to your warehouses, rather than your retail stores. Consequently, a wider variety of products can be shared, and there is a reduced likelihood of your customers seeing the dreaded “out of stock” or “replaced items” messages on their bill. Warehouses are far less likely to run out of specific products than retail outlets. As a result, your BOPIS option will become more precise, more reliable, and more attractive to customers.

3. Conditions and storage efficiencies

A big advantage that automation offers to all sectors is the increased storage efficiency in warehouses by removing walkways. When robots can do all the moving for you, space is freed for other uses. For supermarkets this efficiency goes one step further.

Supermarket warehouses often need to strike a careful balance. Taking care to make sure warehouse conditions are optimal for staff, but at the same time also optimal for the storage of perishable goods. In particular, anything that needs refrigeration. Automation offers new options.

With automation, large sections of your warehouse do not need manual involvement, and so storage conditions can be perfect for the preservation of produce. Without workers moving in and out of climate-controlled sections, energy can be saved, items can be fresher, and taste can greatly improve.

4. From shelf stackers to stock selectors

Automation is often seen as a threat to the employability of front line workers, making the idea of an increasingly automated supermarket deeply feared. In truth, robots do not hold the sword of Damocles over supermarket staff. They offer them a path to take their careers to the next level.

As robots take over much more of the manual labour present in supermarkets, so shop floor staff now have time to be experts on everything from nutrition to flavour content to baking technique. The value of staff at a supermarket becomes an entirely different proposition, where retail workers are respected for their understanding of what they sell. Visiting a supermarket can be a much more interesting and attractive prospect because you know you can talk through your meal plans with someone who deeply understands food. After all, it’s their job.

5. Anti-contamination supply chains

Health and hygiene have always been a bigger concern for supermarkets than perhaps any other retail sector. Covid-19 has simply thrown into sharp relief the essential importance of making sure that warehouse staff are protected, not only for their own sake, but for their customers as well.

Automation offers the assurance of the minimum possible level of human interaction with supermarket produce. Since robots do not breathe, and their surfaces can be easily cleaned, they present the perfect way to handle goods that will be shared with thousands upon millions of homes. Whether during a pandemic or just facing regular health and safety situations, robotic automation makes supermarket customers much safer.

6. 24 hour warehouse without 24 hour staff

Supermarkets have been early pioneers in the field of 24 hour retail options, with many stores making the move to entire-day schedules in the early 2000s. Having a manual labour force that can match that efficiency without increasing costs is a huge competitive edge.

By moving to a robotic automated warehouse, loading and unloading of goods between warehouses and supermarkets can be done far more regularly with far less work. This combination of less downtime and less unsociable shift patterns, provides your business the maximum possible workload in the minimum possible time.

The robotic revolution will likely only go so far. Bricks-and-mortar supermarkets will not be going away. In 2016 and 2017 research by Morgan Stanley found that 84% of consumers still prefer buying groceries in store because they like to be able to physically see what they’re buying. Despite these preferences, supermarkets will change. As technology moves on and robotics progresses, the supermarket will become better, more efficient, and more customer-friendly than ever before.

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