The retail robot developed by a unit of Jabil Inc., could be getting an upgrade.
The robot, which currently monitors stock, price and safety in about 530 grocery stores that are part of the Ahold Delhaize USA chain, would be able to collect more data and send it for analysis faster under a collaboration between AT&T and Badger Technologies, the product division of Jabil (NYSE: JBL).
It’s a new venture for Jabil, a manufacturing services company and the largest company headquartered in St. Petersburg, said Fred McCoy, senior vice president for Jabil Retail and executive director of Badger Technologies.
“Badger Technologies is a subsidiary we set up in 2017 to leverage technology we co-developed with one of our customers around providing data and analytics to retailers to help them improve their operations,” McCoy said. “We’re on the cusp of some significant rollouts and deployments across the world.”
For retailers, who increasingly are under pressure from Amazon and e-commerce, the technology is a way to automate and improve their data and analytics to boost operational efficiency and ultimately revenue and sales, McCoy said.
The robot made its public debut in January, at Giant/Martin’s and Stop & Shop stores in the northeast U.S. The robot — named Marty by those grocery chains — collects images through a series of cameras, which look at what’s out of stock on the shelf, the consistency of the layouts between stores, correct pricing on the shelf edge, and hazards, such as spills, that could result in a bad customer experience.
Right now, the robots are using a grocery store’s existing WiFi network to send the data to a cloud processing platform, McCoy said. Under the partnership with Badger, the AT&T Foundry, the telecommunication company’s innovation lab, is testing 5G and Internet-of-Things connectivity to process and share the data instead.
There are advantages to both retailers and customers.
“The existing WiFi is used for a number of functions. Guests use it inside the store. It’s used by the apps that stores use to track and provide information to their patrons while they are in the store. The store associates use the WiFi network and handheld mobile devices or other wireless devices to support customers and check prices,” McCoy said. “It can create a bottleneck and when you are trying to connect to the store WiFi as a consumer you probably notice that.”
Without 5G service, stores would have to cut services or increase investment in their own wireless infrastructure to make the network more functional.
“By pulling this traffic off the local network, we can eliminate those investments and free up that bandwidth for an improved customer experience,” McCoy said.
Nothing is required on the part of the store, he said.
“AT&T has created microgrids and they exist today in various cities. We would swap out the radios on the robots and they will communicate directly with that AT&T infrastructure, as opposed to forcing the retailer to scale its infrastructure,” McCoy said.
[Click here for an animation demonstrating AT&T’s multi-access edge computing technology in the retail environment.]
Right now, there are constraints on how much data can be processed via the in-store WiFi network.
“We have to make critical choices on the robot platform on what data we send off-premise and what data we use and what analytics we create,” McCoy said. “With the ability to send all the images and all the data, we can create a richer set of analytics and provide some additional insights into the customers … We’re looking at things like improving store layouts, improving how customers flow through the stores. There’s other analytics we can provide with a broader set of images and data.”
Skeptics say robots and automation will make it harder for human workers to find and keep their jobs. McCoy does not see the Badger technology as cutting into employment in the retail industry, which already faces a labor shortage. Instead, he said the technology frees up store employees for more customer-facing and higher-value tasks.
“The average store right now runs 8 percent to 11 percent out of stocks, so that says associates aren’t getting to a lot of those tasks. We can help prioritize that and improve that customers’ experience, finding the products they are looking for,” he said.
The Badger robots are the largest fleet of retail robots currently in use, and that fleet may be expanding.
“We are working with some additional brands in the Ahold Delhaize flag, and we expect some announcements about that in the near future. We have pilots going with retailers in Europe, Australia and across the U.S.,” McCoy said.
The response among shoppers has been overwhelmingly positive, based on social media postings and other measures.
“People don’t typically think of grocery stores and retailers as technology leaders, and now we’re seeing them actually go to the store to seek out the technology. We’ve actually seen foot traffic tick up in some stores that we’re in. Maybe it’s a novelty effect and short term, but the response is generally positive with very few negative reactions,” McCoy said.
In addition, teachers are bringing students to the grocery store to see the technology in action.
“We’ve done some outreach to local schools in the regions where we have robots deployed. It’s a great tool for teaching STEM and STEAM curriculum. It’s a way for kids to understand how math, science, software and programming can come to life.”