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Infrastructure and Operations

The Robot That Will Help Giant Eagle Spot Empty Grocery Shelves

Out-of-stock conditions cost retailers almost $1T a year—here’s how one grocery chain is planning to use autonomous robots to address the problem

Regional grocer Giant Eagle embarked on a robotics experiment last month that it hopes will help keep store shelves full and customers happier. The grocery chain started a pilot with an autonomous shelf auditing robot that patrols stores looking for out-of-stock and misplaced inventory.

“Our culture is to focus on the customer experience,” explains Roger Wolfe, senior manager of research and development (R&D) for Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle. “A big disappointment for us would be if they’re coming in to buy product and we don’t have it. So we wanted to have a way to address out-of-stock conditions.”

To do that, Giant Eagle is partnering with Simbe Robotics to test out Tally, a sleek robot that wheels in and out of grocery aisles to capture, report, and analyze in-store merchandise status. The pilot will place Tally robots in three Giant Eagle stores located in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Akron.

Standing at just over 5 feet tall and 1.5 feet in diameter, Tally rolls around Giant Eagle locations during store hours at about the pace of a walking toddler. It comes equipped with 40 sensors to give it 360-degree awareness of store layout and customers in its path.

Built with over a dozen cameras on its body, the robot takes pictures of shelf layouts that are routed through Simbe’s cloud-powered platform and API to provide Giant Eagle’s systems with real-time information. Every 30 minutes the systems process that information and sends alerts out to employees via mobile device about what’s out of stock, what’s misplaced, and what’s priced incorrectly.

According to a study from retail analysts with IHL Group, out-of-stock conditions cost grocery stores and other retailers $984 billion annually. They say that consumers report experiencing out-of-stock situations at grocery stores and pharmacies as often as one in five shopping trips.

“Consumers are getting more and more frustrated with their experience at local stores due to out-of-stocks,” reports IHL analyst Greg Buzek. “Fast checkouts and being in-stock are the two most important customer experience components. Without these, the rest don’t matter.”

Giant Eagle stores stock anywhere between 20,000 to 60,000 unique items. Keeping all of these items in the right place on the shelves is a process that until now has depended upon time-consuming, manual work for employees to make constant visual checks.

“Labor is tough in stores, and if we can reduce time that people are spending walking the floor and looking for an out-of-shelf condition, they could be focusing on other customer value-add tasks,” Wolfe explains. “We’re not replacing people because there’s a robot in the store. We’re just trying to have the product in the store when the customers are here.”

Founded in 2014, San Francisco-based Simbe Robotics developed Tally to be a robot-as-a-service offering that retailers like Giant Eagle can pay a monthly fee for based on the size and the number of SKUs within a store, as well as other variables, such as whether the store uses technology like computer vision or RFID. Tally robots are being used to track inventory at stores run by St. Louis-based grocer Schnucks Markets, and San Francisco-based athletic retailer Decathlon.

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