#NRF2019: What does the USA's largest fleet of in-store robots look like?

Robots are coming to almost 500 Ahold Delhaize US grocery stores in what will be the largest deployment of front-of-store robots the US retail world has seen.

Following what have been deemed successful trials, Ahold’s Giant Food, Giant Martin and Stop & Shop brands today (14 January) announced that ‘Marty’ the robot will be rolled out across hundreds of stores, primarily to aid health and safety efforts by scanning aisles and reporting back on spillages and potential hazards.

The robots, which are 6ft 3 with "googly eyes", move up and down the aisles of the supermarkets compiling information on hazards in the store. Staff are then alerted to these incidents and can fix the problems accordingly.

Marty is the product of Ahold Delhaize US’s services company Retail Business Services and Badger Technologies, a product division of Jabil, and it has been well received by customers and store associates alike, according to Nick Bertram, president of Giant Food.

The retailer’s use of robots helps stores mitigate risk caused by spills, as well as enable associates to spend more time serving and interfacing with customers, he added during a presentation at NRF 2019.

“We’re pretty excited to start thinking about it and start doing it. It’s been in the process for a number of years – we’ve done a lot of work to find out what can be solved inside the store and what can be augmented [using this technology],” Bertram explained.

“We personified it – instead of simply just introducing a 6ft 3in robot we made it look a bit more human […]. We thought it might freak customers out – and it did – but children especially found having robotics in a supermarket exciting.”

Bertram reported that having Marty has encouraged customers to take selfies and share them on social media, and he added that the retailer has made the robot part of its community engagement efforts outside of the store.

“It’s good to know people aren’t terribly intimidated,” he added.

Steve Platt, director and research fellow at Retail Analytics Council, argued on stage that this roll-out – which is only in its initial stages following today’s announcement – represents the largest global deployment of in-store robots.

He rolled out of other examples of robots in store, including Walmart’s use of the technology to scan out-of-stocks and CaliBurger’s burger-flipping bot, while companies such as Panasonic and LG Electronics are developing robots that can be marketed to retailers as new customer service aids.

On the potential future adoption of robots in stores, Platt said: “I think it will continue to be a trend.”

He added that several issues, including rising labour costs and the seemingly growing need to deploy staff in more customer-facing roles instead of on mundane, routine tasks, will support this move. “Retail robots are really going to find their place in the front of store.”

Tim Rowland, CEO of Badger Technologies, joked about the work that now lies ahead, following Ahold’s decision to widely introduce his company’s technology.

“The good news-bad news story is you get a big roll-out – but now you’ve got to do a big roll-out,” he remarked during the NRF session.

“If you’re going to lead, you better lead right.”

Rowland added that Badger has the backing, the parent company and the staff to scale its fleet for the Ahold brands. He also revealed that the company partnered with Toshiba for the project.

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