As the grocery automation market grows to a staggering value of $13.14bn in 2023, retailers turn to tech to remain competitive and resilient in challenging economic conditions.
An increasing number of stores are introducing unique digital solutions to improve customer experience, cut costs and speed up processes. From rolling out electronic shelf labels to scaling self-checkout solutions, they aim to squeeze out every drop of efficiency possible while creating outstanding customer experiences.
But unlike many other industries, the grocery sector is different. Grocery retailers have to contend with multiple temperature zones, perishable goods, bulky or breakable items, use-by-dates and fruits and vegetables that customers hate to see bruised or badly handled. Then, there’s a last mile that cannot wait and must be temperature controlled.
As a company that is constantly talking to grocery retailers about automation, we often get asked the same questions. Here are our thoughts on the three points that most commonly puzzle retailers.
Should we automate frozen foods?
Until recently, most automated facilities shied away from frozen food. The most common solution was to pick it manually. Either from a cold room or from large freezers.
This was bad for two reasons. On top of a negative impact on picking efficiency, it was energy inefficient.
In 2022 AutoStore unveiled the world’s first cube storage purpose-built for frozen foods. This is, perhaps, the biggest technological break-through in food automation in recent memory.
StrongPoint is launching the world’s first installation of this pioneering solution which will result in a 30-40% reduction in electricity costs for its new owner. The primary driver for the cost reduction is the ability to store up to four times as much in the same area which means a smaller, more densely packed footprint to freeze.
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How can we make grocery automation as efficient as possible?
When it comes to food automation, the word efficiency has a completely new meaning. Razor-thin margins and fast-paced order processing means that the slightest inefficiency can drag down overall profitability of running such a solution.
Just having an automated solution may not necessarily be more efficient than manual picking. Why is this? Because it depends on how the automated facility is organised.
From a grocery-specific warehouse management system to integration into last mile service of choice. The list of grocery-specific tweaks and solutions required to complement the automation solution of choice can have massive impact on the overall efficiency.
Modern in-store picking solutions using the most advanced solutions are already hitting 350 items per hour in raw picking power. An automated solution should be able to almost double that, but it’s the ‘everything else besides the automated solution’ that can bring down the overall efficiency. If you buy a Lamborghini’s engine, you need the best tyres and be racing it on the best track. Everything needs to be geared up for hyper-efficiency, from goods-in to goods-out.
Which brings us onto a third counter-intuitive topic.
What shouldn’t we automate?
Retailers can automate almost anything, but it’s a question of cost and efficiency. Fast-moving products are often more cost-effective to store and pick manually or with limited automation.
From our experience, it makes far more sense to combine an automated facility with manual picking zones rather than try to automate everything possible.
But which items to choose and how to organize them? This depends on the unique needs of the grocery retailer’s customer demands. This is also where ‘big’ isn’t necessarily ‘best’ when it comes to grocery automation.
The UK’s taste for home delivery is increasingly becoming a click & collect market as it’s a far more affordable option.
This is a huge opportunity for brick & mortar grocery retailers to leverage their store network. Cube storage solutions can be made so small that they could be used in conjunction with a store network allowing the best of both worlds. Hyper-efficient processing of the items that make sense to automate could be coupled with easy access to a long tail of items that can be easily picked from the store.
Each retailer looking at grocery automation is unique. In fact, each site is unique, and every solution should be purpose-built to take into consideration the needs of the retailer, the site and their consumers’ needs.
This is not a market where off-the-shelf solutions can be mass-produced to fit everyone.
StrongPoint is an AutoStore distributor in the UK, Ireland, Nordics and Baltics. StrongPoint is AutoStore’s first grocery-focused partner and was chosen to install the world’s first cube storage solution from AutoStore with three temperature zones: ambient, chilled and frozen. StrongPoint provides in-store and e-grocery solutions including the world’s most efficient manual picking solution with grocery retailers picking in-store 350 items/hr across all product lines. With over 500 employees in the UK, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Spain and, the Baltics, and together with a wide partner network, StrongPoint supports retailers and grocery retailers in more than 20 countries.