• Retail
  • Robotics
  • Artificial Intelligence

Robots and Digital Innovations Transform Shopping

Young Hoon Kim
Apr 02, 2021


Coupang, South Korea's e-commerce giant, took only 11 years to grow from a startup to an $80 billion-valued company through aggressive investments and smart business models. Rocket Delivery, the company’s next-business-day shipping service that started in 2014, has disrupted the Korean shopping market, and nearly 70% of Koreans live within 7 miles of a company logistics center. Coupang's recent initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange demonstrates the company’s success, raising nearly $4.6 billion, and this e-commerce player is ready to shake up the shopping market in another round.

The thriving e-commerce sector poses a threat to offline stores. Consequently, brick-and-mortar stores have fought back using innovative technologies such as store automation. For example, Wundermart is a solutions provider powering unmanned stores at more than 60 shops across the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany. In February 2021, Wundermart announced a collaboration with AiFi, offering computer vision technology to enhance its autonomous store solutions. AiFi's technology manages store shelves autonomously and allows customers to make payments at the kiosk without needing to scan each item.

Robots Make Inroads at Brick and Mortars

As part of the retail digital transformation, robots have made inroads particularly in retail warehouse logistics. For example, US retail giant Kroger has recently opened an automated warehouse distribution facility partnering with British online grocery delivery company Ocado. Ocado’s robotic and digital technology assembles approximately 50 items in 6 minutes compared with the 30 to 45 minutes required when employees pick and assemble items. Ocado is in expansion mode, recently acquiring two US robotics companies

In China, a grocery store operator in Beijing has set up a shopping experience that includes a smart robotic cart. The cart follows the customer autonomously, and items dropped into the cart are scanned automatically. The customer then completes the payment transaction at the kiosk without the need to scan each item one at a time at checkout.

Similarly, an autonomous robot backed by cloud computing infrastructure can cruise retail store aisles monitoring products and detecting misplaced or out-of-stock items. Thus, stores can benefit from more accurate and real-time stocking decisions for shelf inventory. For instance, in late 2020, Simbe Robotics announced the latest generation of its Tally inventory management robot, claiming the device can detect 10 times more out-of-stock items than when the process is done manually and averages a 20% reduction in out-of-stock items at the store level.

Omnichannel Approach Gaining Traction Both Online and Offline

In addition to robots, retail innovation continues to evolve. A subsidiary of Kroger called 84.51° has rolled out an analytics tool called Stratum that captures both offline store data and digital transactions to help brands better position their products online as well as in-store.
The tool is part of a trend called omnichannel, which is essentially a multichannel sales approach that integrates customer experience. Both traditional in-store and online retailers are adopting this tactic, creating a competitive environment in which the race is on to exploit the latest innovations. In this regard, all market players need to stay ahead of technical advances in retail that resonate with customers—or risk getting left behind.