Grocery Stores Using Robots to Fulfill Online Orders

How the future of delivery is going high-tech to get your groceries faster and cheaper

NBC Universal, Inc.

Clogged aisles at the supermarket aren’t what any of us want these days. A lot of the congestion comes from “order pickers,” a name used by the grocery industry for those who fulfill your online orders. With demand for online delivery growing, some major grocery chains are going high-tech to free up aisle space and lower operating costs.

“The consumer demand continues to build,” said Jewel Hunt, vice president of e-commerce for Albertsons, the parent company of Safeway. “COVID has changed people’s shopping patterns, but it has fast-forwarded digital adoption.”

Safeway is one of several grocery stores testing micro-fulfillment centers (MFC). In 2019, Albertsons launched the small-scale fulfillment centers at two Safeway supermarkets in the San Francisco Bay Area. The MFCs are located inside existing stores, often in the back. Customers have no idea they are there.

How do MFCs work?

When you place an online order, instead of it going to a person who shops the aisles, it goes to the MFC, which uses a combination of robots and people to fulfill the order. Fulfilling the order in-store allows the grocer to offer the personalized service that customers are used to.

“For the highly perishable fresh items for example, if you want a special cut of meat, we want our butchers to be able to provide that to our customers,” said Hunt.

Safeway says its test drive of the MFCs is so far proving to be successful with the ability to fulfill orders 5 times faster.

Another new concept being used to meet delivery needs are so-called “dark stores.” These are online-only stores. Whole Foods just opened a dark store in Brooklyn, New York, a couple of months ago. It looks like a regular store inside, but the only shoppers you’ll find in there are Whole Foods employees fulfilling online orders.

“So to be able to have delivery that has all the bells and whistles and has all the features of going to the store and not have to do that or cost you $5 or $8 is a very good deal and more people are interested in doing that,” said Bill Bishop, a retail food industry analyst and co-founder of Brick Meets Click.

As far as the robots fulfilling orders we’re told you don’t have to worry about expiration dates or poorly picked produce because a person checks the order before it’s sent out.

And by the way, if you don’t want to pay delivery fees, you can still order online and select curbside pickup.

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