Artificial Intelligence & Automation: The Future of Grocery?

by Andrew Hoeft | Apr 26, 2021 1:55:15 PM

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Technology solutions are constantly changing the face of retail; grocery retail is not exempt from this reality. Bringing artificial intelligence, automation, and other innovative technologies to the grocery store aisles is inevitable and increasingly necessary in a post-COVID world where consumers will prioritize an efficient and sanitary shopping experience. “Putting the AI in Grocery Aisles,” a recent article in Food Logistics, points out that AI may soon impact every aspect of the grocery store, from pricing enhancements, to product placements, to online order fulfillment. Let’s take a closer look at what sort of advancements retailers are already embracing, and innovations that may become common practice in the near future. 

Online Shopping & App Interaction

The pandemic saw a surge in third-party services partner with retailers to provide speedy, fresh deliverybut many grocers saw the rising demand for online shopping as an opportunity to develop a stronger online shopping experience. In Grocery Dive, Rosie Bradbury writes that “retailers have expanded their virtual communication with consumers over the course of the pandemic by pushing new e-commerce techniques and using social media innovatively to promote their brand identity.” Just as an in-store experience should actively engage consumers, so should the online experience. Attention paid to user-friendly interface, aesthetically pleasing and on-brand style, color, and format, and fun seasonable updates can all contribute to a positive online shopping experience. 

The interactive element of technology and consumer experience doesn’t have to stop at the website: Apps are playing a larger role in the omnichannel experience, from displaying store locations, to showing ads and corresponding coupons scanned directly at checkout. Walmart even introduced a new store format that encourages shoppers to navigate using the company's app. 

Some retailers are even pairing up with tech companies to integrate grocery and technology: Albertsons has partnered with Google to merge “the grocer’s broad reach and retail know-how with the tech company’s capacity for customer-centric disruptive innovation.” Among planned innovations are “shoppable maps with dynamic hyperlocal features, artificial intelligence (AI)-powered conversational commerce, and predictive grocery list building via Google Cloud.” Some shoppers may be—understandably—hesitant about the introduction of AI into their grocery store, but the successful integration of innovative technology will mean enhancing the shopping experience without compromising high-quality customer service or a consumer’s sense of safety. In the case of Albertson and Google innovating together, “the partnership’s rollouts will build on projects already implemented to improve the customer experience.” 

Grocers will benefit from the ecosystem of the store’s physical space and digital presence being synced and streamlined to the highest efficiency. “With the pandemic influencing how organizations work, causing an increased focus on e-commerce and greatly affecting inventory and supply chain issues, using tech platforms to automate data and help the important flow of information can make it easier for all partners to do their jobs effectively.” Responsible use of AI can create more efficient omnichannel interaction and provide a customer with the best possible shopping experience whether they’re having groceries delivered, picking up a curbside order, or shopping in-store. 

Automation in Cleaning & Self-Serve

Many retailers are already embracing automation when it comes to sanitation practices. The pandemic saw a rising success for companies such as Brain Corp., which provides AI software to power robotic floor scrubbers. With grocers bolstering use of robotic cleaning mechanisms to “keep employees safer, increase social distancing and reduce the number of staff that have to physically come to work,” AI technology can help massively to regulate consistent store-cleaning practices; many stores have found that automated cleaning allows them to meet compliance standards consistently and with less hassle. Even post-pandemic, highly regulated sanitation routines will be necessary to keep the in-store shopping experience safe and sanitary for consumers.

In an effort to address the sanitary challenges presented by self-service stations, some stores have also begun investing in automated serving stations. Heinen’s rolled out Sally, a salad-making robot, during the pandemic to test out whether the technology could replace the concept of self-serve salad bar—which was a questionably sanitary practice, even pre-pandemic. One Walmart store in California introduced a station called Blendid, which can receive mobile orders from an app and select and blend ingredients for a smoothie in about three minutes. This type of technology will continue to flourish in a market calling for high levels of innovation and reduced levels of unnecessary contact. Kiosks like Sally and Blendid are expensive, but as the expectation for reduced contact remains high post-pandemic, consumers may find robotic serving stations a welcome—if not cutting edge—alternative to self-serve. 

Digital Consumer Personalization

Engaging with customers through online channels—whether it be on a website or an app—has reached a critical peak, especially given the tremendous surge in online shopping during the pandemic. Personalizing the online shopping experience can incorporate AI technology as a way of learning more about individual consumer habits and preferences. “Engaging with customers has changed dramatically in recent years as online shopping frequency has increased,” Emily Crowe writes for SmartBrief. “Retailers should be doing everything they can to develop relationships with digital consumers and personalize the shopping experience.” 

Reward programs are personalizing, too. Retailers can utilize customized registration forms to find out information about consumer demographics, interests, and preferences. “Grocers can [then] use this information to personalize their marketing, re-engage customers and provide relevant support to facilitate the journey from part-time shopper to brand enthusiast.”

The promise of rewards and loyalty points will catch a consumer’s attention, and from there it’s up to the retailer to customize toward individual buying habits. Using data in a responsible way to manage the customer experience is becoming an increasingly necessary practice to compete and stand out as a retailer. 

Remote Automated Fulfillment 

Automation will see a growing role in the future of grocery, both in remote fulfillment centers and retailers where consumers can both pickup online orders and shop in-store. One growing industry practice is pickup-only locations like dark stores (stores without “shoppers,” just customers picking up online orders) and isolated pickup points (such as temperature-controlled storage containers in store parking lots that function as individual units), both options that remove some of the challenges that come with operating an in-store environment, and seem to be most profitable on a per-order basis. As e-commerce maintains growing popularity, reducing labor and time consumers spend in-store by implementing remote pick up locations such as these may see an upward trend. Consider, too, the increase in automated warehouse protocols, such as Ocado’s pioneering innovations in the grocery warehouse automation market. Keep an eye out for a future blog to learn more about the growing prevalence of remote fulfillment in grocery, and what it means for both retailers and consumers.

Conclusion

Innovation in technology has always driven change. Advancements in automation and AI will affect the grocery supply chain from distributor to shopping cart. In an age of surplus information, grocery retailers can harness this data to the best advantage of not only the company, but also the consumer. Mobilizing the power of AI, automated machines, and data has become a must as customers shift between in-store shopping to e-commerce and expect stores to maintain a personalized and frictionless experience. Grocers looking to stay on top of rising automation will be careful to consider how certain innovations will best enhance the grocery experience—from warehouse to storefront to consumer—without sacrificing high-quality product and service.

To learn more about AI/Automation in grocery and consumer trends in 2020 and beyond, download our e-book report on a 2020 Consumer Survey, Taking Stock of 2020: What Grocery Retailers Need to Know About Post-Pandemic Consumer Trends. In this e-book, you will learn about:

  • Changes in Consumer Behavior: COVID-19
  • Embracing the Future of Omnichannel Shopping
  • Sustainability: What Consumers Expect & How Retailers Can Meet Expectations
  • In-Store Shopping vs. Online Shopping: How the Management of Expired Foods Impacts the Consumer Experience 

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