One of the more critical steps Amazon took in securing its lead in the e-commerce race was the purchase of Kiva Systems, which built robots designed to speed up warehouse processes. Since then, competitors have been looking for their own robotic advantages. With Amazon entering the grocery business with its purchase of Whole-Foods, Kroger, America’s largest supermarket chain, is getting into the mix with its own robot offensive. Bloomberg’s Sarah Halzack reports:
Kroger Co., the giant but aging supermarket chain, has unleashed a flurry of initiatives to ensure it won’t get thumped in a post-Amazon-buying-Whole-Foods world: It is revamping locations, bought a meal-kit company, and sold off its convenience-store business. Its biggest gamble, though, is a partnership with British online grocer Ocado Group Plc. The two plan to build as many as 20 automated grocery warehouses in the U.S. to help Kroger turbocharge its e-commerce operation.
Grocery has proven a uniquely tough business to bring into the online era. Orders often have dozens of items – some frozen, some cold, some room temperature – and much of the inventory is perishable. That simply makes for a different challenge than the one Amazon.com Inc. has successfully tackled by getting a single laptop computer or phone charger on your doorstep in one day.
Ocado has focused specifically on digital grocery shopping for its entire corporate life, and it shows. At its newest online grocery fulfillment center outside London, 1,000 robots zoom around a grid at a speed of four meters (13 feet) per second, extending a gripper to pick up and transport bins of groceries. The system strips out labor costs and enables human workers to pack about 600 items per hour. Every aspect of the fulfillment process is designed for the unique quirks of grocery, including systems that cue workers about what items in a given order they should put in a single grocery bag. (This ensures, for example, that something heavy doesn’t plop onto a dozen eggs.) Ocado estimates its system saves one hour of labor for every 50-item order – no small thing in a segment of retail with notoriously thin profit margins.