With the rise of grocery delivery, pickup services, and same-day orders, customer demands on grocers worldwide are only increasing. The industry is projected to continue growing and evolving as investments from venture capital firms help fuel innovative solutions to meet these demands.
One thing seems certain – the future of the grocery industry is a mix of both digital and in-store experiences. Micro-fulfillment technology may become a common, even foundational mainstay in stores across the US.
Grocery’s First Major Format Change in Over 100 Years
If you venture into any grocery store in the US today, you will find aisle layouts that haven’t changed much since the early 1900s. There are great swaths of stocked shelves with non-perishable items, as well as temperature-controlled areas for refrigerated and frozen foods… and perhaps a deli or a bakery on the side.
However, this ever-constant structure is well on its way to a massive transformative shift.
Many grocery retailers are preparing to reimagine the grocery experience altogether… by leveraging Artificial Intelligence (AI) and micro-fulfillment technology.
AI has already changed the way consumers shop, due to their dramatic shift to digital ordering. Artificially-intelligent systems now allow regularly-purchased items to move to a “subscription model,” with shoppers regularly picking up or receiving their staples at home.
But that change is just one of many yet to come.
How Can Grocery Stores Become High-Tech Omni-Stores of the Future?
In the coming years, your local grocery store could install a micro-fulfillment center (or “MFC”) that houses the most commonly ordered items in their inventory, where workers can quickly pick and prepare orders without walking around a full store with bulky carts. By adapting their store models in this way, grocery retailers can then free up storage space, which will allow more room for highly selective items such as deli, meat and produce.
Younger customers may be the most eager to adapt to this shift and embrace the innovation wholeheartedly. This model will allow consumers to spend a far smaller amount of time inside a brick-and-mortar store–– time they can use to browse specialty items while their staple orders are being selected automatically for them by fulfillment workers.
The First Steps to Reshaping Any Grocery Retail Model
First, grocers should begin by designing a new store layout, and identifying frequently-purchased non-perishable items which could be easily moved into high-density storage. This will free up available space for fresh produce, meat, and specialty items; as well as “customer-experience-oriented” features such as sampling areas or coffee stations.
Another benefit possible when installing a MFC in the grocery store of the future is the avoidance of manual picking operations for digital orders. An in-store MFC can replace workers who would otherwise have to travel the aisles to fill orders, therefore removing congestion for existing in-store customers. It is even possible for online grocery orders to be fulfilled in a completely segregated “dark/lights out” store, which can use automated mobile robots (AMRs) to collect items in an environment closed to any customer walk-in traffic. Micro-fulfillment technology in this instance would allow for high-density product storage and limited labor to productively pick orders either for delivery or for on-site pickup.
Grocery stores of the future will emphasize the experience of their customers: striving to make shopping more convenient and enjoyable. While most people think of eCommerce and micro-fulfillment as the complete automation of goods and services, brick-and-mortar grocery stores need to ensure that the application they implement will aid in the overall customer experience, increase productivity, and allow for scalable solutions as their business grows from increasing digital demand.