Grocery Product Managers Turn To Robots To Speed Things Up

Robots are being seen as a solution to a throughput problem
Robots are being seen as a solution to a throughput problem
Image Credit: Jeremy Noble

Customers have become used to going online and placing orders for items that then magically show up at their door. Nowhere has this been more transforming than in the ordering of grocery items. Each consumer can pick out a wide range of different items that all have to be collected and placed into the correct order. When humans do this, it can be time consuming and expensive to do. However, product managers think that they may have found a solution to their problem. Maybe they should change their product development definition and start to use robots to do the collecting and packaging. Is this what will transform a money losing operation into a money making one?

It’s All About Speed

The product managers at are testing a back-of-store automated systems that can collect 800 products an hour, 10 times as many as an average store worker can. When these robotic systems are being used, workers stand on platforms in front of screens assembling online orders of milk, cereal and toilet paper from the automated system. Once the order has been entered, wheeled robots carrying small baskets move along metal tracks to collect those items. They will then be bagged for pickup later by shoppers or delivery to homes. Product managers at Walmart and Albertsons and Kroger are using automation to improve efficiency in a fast-growing but costly business that comes with a range of logistical challenges.

The backroom robots could help the Walmart product managers cut labor costs and fill orders faster and more accurately. The product managers are also hoping that they can address another problem: unclogging aisles that these days can get crowded with clerks picking products for online orders. Studies have shown that a store worker can collect around 80 products from store shelves an hour. The new robot systems are designed to collect 800 products an hour per workstation, operated by a single individual. At the start of a day workers stock the 24-foot-high machine with the products most often ordered online, including refrigerated and frozen foods. One exception to this process is fresh produce which is still picked by hand in store aisles. A version of this robot system will be installed in two more stores later this year and a fourth version of the system is already built in a store near Walmart’s headquarters.

Product managers at Walmart, already the country’s largest seller of groceries by revenue, have become an online grocery heavyweight by offering a service from thousands of stores that lets shoppers pick up online orders from store parking lots without leaving their cars. They also offer home grocery delivery from more than 1,000 stores. Currently online orders are still a relatively small part of total grocery spending in the U.S. E-commerce was about 3.5% of overall food and beverage category sales last year. Studies show that online grocery sales are growing fast, but the logistical and profit challenges of filling shoppers’ orders and delivering fresh food to homes have product managers battling to find a model that pays off. If product managers can solve this problem, then they’ll have something to add to their product manager resume.

Make Way For The Robots

The Walmart product managers know that using store workers to fill orders with products already on shelves isn’t only costly, it makes it hard to tell online shoppers exactly what’s available at any given moment. The problem with picking inventory from the shelf is inventory is never where it’s supposed to be. All too often people move it around, and fast-moving items are never there. The Walmart product managers aim to add automation and remodel their stores in order to better accommodate online orders after some shoppers complained about clogging in the aisles. The product managers realize that Walmart can’t disadvantage their most-profitable customers, which are the ones who drive to the store and do all the work themselves.

Product managers at Albertsons are adding online grocery fulfillment devices in store backrooms designed by Takeoff Technologies. They added two of the automated systems to stores last year. Product managers at Kroger are investing in larger, more-remote distribution centers to further automate the process of grocery delivery. Using stores and backrooms to process online grocery orders gives product managers another way to generate income from existing assets. Walmart’ product managers have been looking for other ways to use their base of around 4,700 U.S. stores to compete with Inc., including adding more services like health care and selling technology like computing power based in stores to other businesses.

Walmart’s product managers first talked to Alert Innovation about building an automation system back in 2016. At the time, product managers believed that for an online grocery business to become more profitable, fulfillment had to happen close to customers and without having to send workers weaving through aisles for every order. Walmart adds 20,000 square feet of space to stores to facilitate the robot system and more space for shoppers to pick up orders in cars. Additionally, they hired around 10 additional people to keep the machine stocked and continue picking some fresh produce from the store shelves.

What All Of This Means For You

The world of grocery delivery has taken off in the past few years. The pandemic caused even more customers to take advantage of this service where it was being offered. What this has meant for the product managers at the large groceries is that they have had to use their product manager job description and look for ways to become more streamlined. They started out having workers assemble all of the orders, but they have discovered that this takes too long and costs too much. What they need is a better, quicker, way to accomplish this task.

The product managers at Walmart are experimenting with a robot that can collect 800 products an hour – much faster than a human can. One of their reasons for using the robots is because they believe that using them can allow them to unclog their store aisles. Online grocery shopping is still a small part of the overall grocery market, but it is growing fast. Another problem with using humans to fill online orders is that it is both costly and often what items are available is not clearly communicated to the online customers. Product managers at Albertsons and Kroger are also adding robots to help in completing online orders. When the Walmart product managers add a robot system to a store, they also have to add additional parking spots for customers and workers to keep the robots stocked.

Clearly online ordering of groceries is something that is here to stay. As customers become more and more comfortable doing this, we can only assume that it will grow. Product managers at the grocery stores understand that they need to find ways to streamline their operations in order to keep up with this growing portion of their business. The use of robots appears to be one way that they can complete more orders quicker and at a lower price. Product managers are going to have to find ways to work more robots into the online ordering process in order to boost their productivity.

– Dr. Jim Anderson Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™

Question For You: Do you think that robots should be used to deliver the food to the customers?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

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