The ongoing technological odyssey of robots and their acceptance into retail stores has given way to some interesting observations. “Timing is everything” is an ironic truth.
In my early days, developing a robotic solution for retail and defining its roadmap, I would say it was the beginning of embracing the technology and its presence to pave the way for adoption. There was reluctance and worry of what image a robot solution would project in stores; would it take away jobs? Interfere with and affect their shoppers? etc. Concerns faded away as developments progressed and time passed. Some even humanized the robot and gave it a name, such as Marty from Badger. Others used a more inconspicuous design, such as Tally from Simbe, to mold with the surroundings and provide less interference to shoppers and employees. There has been progress as solutions evolve, and competition from the likes of Amazon motivate retailers to integrate new technologies faster than usual. I call that advancement and realization maturity.
Highly complicated solution
The road to automating retail stores with robots, as with any changing technology, will be prolonged and challenging. Any paradigm shift for retailers and everyone in their ecosystem requires management and leadership. Understandably, typical startup challenges can lead to costly delays. Add the multiple, significant components needed to build a robotic solution for each retailer, and you compound these challenges that can create a recipe for disaster. The components are:
- Robot hardware and autonomous navigation in a congested environment.
- Collecting and processing images, building and growing the artificial intelligence and learning capabilities.
- The infrastructure needed to oversee, maintain, support and integrate to solve real retail business problems.
Who is on the right track?
All the current players have achieved various levels of success in accurately, repeatedly, and reliably scanning retail shelves at scale. I believe they have gained reasonable reliability in autonomous navigation. Image processing is the most complex – lengthy in effort and the bulk of the complete solution, along with scale challenges. We are still a distance from attaining 80% of a usable shelf compliance solution, but this is within reach – more so for some.
Here is my perspective on where we are:
Bossa Nova Robotics – Currently the longest-running company to bring realization to a robotic solution for retail and the apparent leader. Completing major milestones in installation of autonomous data collection robots in 350 Walmart stores and just receiving a commitment for an additional 650 stores to be completed by summer of 2020. This is great news and a sizable milestone that Bossa Nova can use in its next funding round. As Sarjoun Skaff, CTO of Bossa Nova puts it, “This is a very complex solution and as we found out, there are no shortcuts. Everyone has to go through the same challenges to get here. We are focused on solving problems to deliver a scalable solution and providing true value to our customers…”
The 350-store mark has been long in the works and is a considerable accomplishment, we will stay attentive to the new 1,000-store milestone. Bossa Nova has the most sophisticated equipment designed compared to others. Building a solution with cost to scale has always been an issue for all. With the release of the new 2020 hardware, claims are made that it comes at lower cost. I believe this is an area of opportunity for Bossa Nova to break away and add additional retailer banners.
Simbe Robotics – There is big news in Simbe’s raising $26 million in funding, and a partnership with SoftBank inventory financing to expedite deployment of their robots globally. Simbe believes they have the largest geographical deployment of their robots. Brad Bogolea, CEO of Simbe Robotics shared, “We have been focused on operationalizing the data as a priority in getting ready to scale. We feel we have done a good job diversifying our customer base and making the solution work for all departments and partners, this puts us in a good position to grow to chain wide rollouts this year, announcements forthcoming …”
Simbe has presence in the U.S. at Schnucks and Giant Eagle, using the vision solution and now with Decathlon using the recently added RFID capabilities. They also have coverage in Europe, the UAE and Asia with notable large global retailers. This might prove to be a winning strategy, diversifying early on and capturing a wide group of the 250 global retailers, as they get ready to scale. I still look for larger store count rollout beyond the 50 stores publicly announced, and expansion of current installations at Schnucks and Giant Eagle. The recent money raised and SoftBank partnership to increase production efficiencies could give them the boost they need to mature their capabilities and scale. Simbe did not participate with a presence at NRF this year; with their current global retailer coverage this could be a strategy to go dark with heads down, using the latest infusion to build up their abilities and get ready for the next phase to scale, we will wait and see.
Badger Technologies – I recognized this company early on for its accomplishment of building a spill detection solution for retail stores, in a short couple of years. Although less complex, they were able to scale it and deploy it to over 500 stores; Giant, Martin’s, and Stop and Shop. Tim Rowland, CEO of Badger Technologies says, ”We see a need for a multi-function robot, we were surprised by the demand for a combined spill detection and inventory data collection robot as we expand our discussion with retailers, we also notice retailers looking beyond the hype of the robot idea and to focus more on how to operationalize the data collected to improve efficiencies and shopping experiences.”
I think Badger starting out with a spill detection machine is an advantage, getting experience testing in live environments, and monetizing early on to help go further without having to rely on constant money-raising efforts. It helps as well to be part of Jabil, a $26 billion manufacturing solutions provider. If the Badger/Jabil combo cannot bring manufacturing costs down, no one can. Badger Technologies has an impressive local seasoned team that works well together and has the feel-good sense of a small town in Kentucky coming together and getting it done. They are now testing Badger Retail Insight, a robot that addresses out of stock, planogram compliance, and price integrity issues, competing with Bossa Nova and others. The processing capability is the biggest challenge and is a one- to three-year effort to complete and achieve an acceptable compliance reporting functionality. This will be key to how fast the solution penetrates and wins market share. We will continue to observe how Badger matures, given its current tests with Walmart and a half-dozen other retailers globally.
Zippedi – Zippedi has been stealthily building its solution capabilities, leveraging local university talent and getting reasonable store coverage in South America. Luis Vera, CEO of Zippedi shared, “We have tried several approaches to bring a real solution to our customers, from fixed cameras to robots. I think with the current robotic solution capability and tools we provide the expanded retailer partners; we are minimizing the out of stock problem for them by allowing them to respond quicker to shelf conditions.”
Zippedi has built a solution for the retail ecosystem to scale from the ground up. They capitalized on retail expertise from the leadership’s previous venture, called SCOPIX, that provided video analytics for retailers to improve business operations, sales and profits. They validated the robotic solution in several retailers in grocery and home improvement across five countries. Now testing in several major U.S. retailers, we can look forward to seeing if their model will gain traction and expand.
Zebra Technologies – Finally, the best kept secret that everyone knew is out. Zebra rolled out its intelligent automation solution at NRF called SmartSight, which features the EMA50 and has the advantage of integrating with its portfolio of Zebra mobile computers. Zebra has been providing retailers with store-level solutions for more than 50 years. Undoubtedly, they have a respectable size and a diverse set of retailers to introduce their solution and expand quickly. Rob Armstrong, vice president of portfolio marketing at Zebra Technologies commented, “With the SmartSight solution integrated with the rest of our portfolio, we can prioritize the tasks as they are pushed to the store associates’ mobile computers increasing their availability to interact directly with shoppers. We feel confident our existing capabilities are strong enough to optimize replenishment, reduce out-of-stocks, and provide value around compliance while reassigning labor to higher value assignments that enhance the shopper experience.”
Normally I would say this is a bit late to the party, but Zebra leveraging its heritage, infrastructure, portfolio, and reach might be the game changer. What Zebra lacks in agility because of its size, it makes it up with maturity, certainly a rare ingredient in the startup world of robots. Image processing and computer vision proficiencies could have gotten a boost as well from a recent acquisition of Cortexica, and an investment in Focal Systems. Although shelf insights are a more complex problem to solve, it is possible the new talent will help mature the solution. These are very interesting moves made recently by Zebra Technologies. We will watch closely how it all comes together over the next year.
Brain Corp and Savioke – Brain Corp specializing in the robot operating system with its early success of implanting its technology into floor-scrubbing machines and successfully completing it at Walmart, is now collaborating with Savioke. Savioke is the maker of robots for hospitality. Together they are working on a shelf-scanning solution. Like Zebra, these are the early days and they will soon learn the complications of collecting and processing retail data at scale. The field is getting crowded, prospects of collaborating and simplifying efforts to accomplish fast results are growing.
What to look for next
- Bossa Nova’s rollout to 1,000 Walmart stores by end of summer, and indications that its model is viable for other retailers to consider.
- Simbe’s convergence to expand chain wide in its current retailer presence.
- Zippedi solidifying its presence in Latin America and penetrating the North American market.
- The progress of Badger building the processing capabilities of its insight solution and gaining wider retailer store presence of its new robot.
All are progressing at different speeds, maturing their capabilities with differing models. No question about it, robots are here to stay, and will be a permanent moving fixture in every retail aisle. They will have various robot duties, providing real data to feed many solutions and finally making them usable. The future we dreamed about is here!
As these companies scale, the impact of robotics in retail will start to touch the whole ecosystem beyond obvious data collection efficiencies and labor savings. Retail will not be the same. Current solutions in retail will either be enhanced and made more effective or rendered obsolete. Regardless, this opens the door to countless possibilities that many in the industry long await. This realization occurs when robots reach the threshold of truly scaling and collecting data from “the whole store in all stores” as Danny Sacco, former retail leader at Nielsen, keeps reminding me. I agree and say, “This is when the fun begins”.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in Winsight Grocery Business
About the author: Georges Mirza has been ahead of trends developing retail/CPG market leading industry changing solutions. He led the charge and established the road map for robotic indoor data collection, image recognition and analytics for retail to address out of stock, inventory levels and compliance. Georges currently advises companies on how to strategize and prioritize their road maps for growth. Follow him on LinkedIn, Twitter or e-mail.