We are truly in the age of automated retail – it may yet be early days, but the past two to three years have seen a massive surge in the uptake of automation technologies in retail and e-commerce.
According to market research company Interact Analysis, 2021 saw a 70% increase in shipments, with at least 50% annual growth expected for the next five years. Consumer habits have shifted to e-commerce and omnichannel shopping, with labor shortages and inflation pushing up labor costs, leaving retailers looking for new solutions.
We’re still at the beginning of a new age of automation. Leading retailers are deploying fleets of AMRs. The space is evolving. Going forward, we will see more powerful technologies that will further streamline and empower retail operations.
Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are picking up the slack in increasing numbers. We’re still at the beginning of a new age of automation. Retailers are deploying powerful automation solutions and that’s opening exciting new possibilities. Even things that caused major headaches in the past, such as the strain of peak periods like holiday shopping, Black Friday, or Singles Day, are today easily managed with mobile robots. Whereas it used to be that staff would have to be recruited and trained weeks or months in advance, robotic reinforcements can be deployed in hours and associates can be trained on, and productive with, the new system just as quickly.
As things stand, sophisticated warehouse management softwares take care of incorrect orders, which now are largely a thing of the past. An accurate, comprehensive overview of the inventory moving into and out of warehouses, distribution centers, and store fronts is now standard. This, along with order picking accuracy of 99.99%, is key to increasing customer satisfaction and minimizing returns.
For these reasons and more, including worker comfort, safety, and retention, we can think of AMR-automated operations as the new industry standard. More and more retailers and e-commerce companies around the world are looking at how they can upgrade their operations with mobile robots, while those still holding onto traditional operations are playing catch-up.
One sector of the retail industry that is experiencing unique developments is the apparel industry with omnichannel fulfilment, which allows the same distribution center to fulfil both retail and direct-to-consumer orders. Today, technology can coordinate the distribution of large amounts of inventory in a full range of styles, colors, and sizes from distribution centers to stores, reducing the time needed to sort clothes and get them in front of customers. This is especially helpful during promotional sale periods; inventory can be replenished quickly, and store staff can reallocate their time to more value-added tasks.
With direct-to-consumer online orders, companies must be equipped to effectively manage returns processing. AMRs and algorithms easily handle reverse logistics and can receive returned items, catalogue them, and get them back into the inventory to be resold.
In a more everyday situation – or one that will likely become more everyday – mobile robots will also take on a greater role in grocery shopping. Robots and algorithms make possible micro-fulfillment centers, a kind of hybrid mini-warehouse that blurs the line between warehouse and storefront. In future, you’ll be able to place an order via phone, and robots will collect the items and have them ready for pick-up. Unlike traditional methods, this would be available 24/7, making it ideal for big cities, where space is expensive, store hours limited, and where consumers want more flexibility to do their shopping.
Now that robotic automation has become an accelerating trend, leading retailers are deploying fleets of AMRs. The space is evolving. Going forward, we will see new, more powerful technologies that will further streamline and empower retail operations for the coming decades.
Rick DeFiesta is the EVP of Sales & Solutions for Geek+ America. He heads the company’s expansion in North, Central, and South America, including strategy, sales, and customer relations. Rick previously managed sales and operations in some of the largest material handling companies in North America, as well as implementing large automated systems on the customer side. Rick has assisted hundreds of customers with his decades of experience in distribution, order fulfillment, manufacturing, and assembly by implementing the latest technologies in complex integrated solutions.