When the pandemic emerged and spread globally in 2020, many consumers were forced to resort to online shopping –– not just for non-perishable items like clothing or technology, but also for food and meals –– in the face of empty shelves and strict community quarantine standards. The pandemic accelerated ecommerce growth, and online grocery sales grew nearly 50% almost overnight.
ONLINE GROCERY SHOPPING HASN’T SLOWED DOWN
Now, even after much of the world has been vaccinated and is returning to in-person workplaces or stores, many consumers continue to utilize online ordering and curbside pickup. In fact, online grocery shopping is only increasing in adoption and demand.
Consumers have embraced the advantages of not having to enter a store, spending time searching for items, or waiting in line to check out. This, however, has presented its own set of challenges.
Many retailers and grocers were not fully prepared to handle the increased volume of online orders, and as a result were sent scrambling to solve the challenge of direct-to-consumer parcel shipments and curbside pickup.
Traditional brick and mortar stores have become packed with store associates fulfilling online customer orders. In-store shoppers can find it particularly difficult to navigate around the store, often being impeded by the uptick in traffic and finding fewer items on the shelves due to increased demand.
As a result, many retailers are rethinking their strategy to embrace automation at the store level to satisfy the increase in demand for curbside convenience.
AUTOMATION – NOT JUST IN DISTRIBUTION CENTERS, BUT IN STORES
As a response to increased ecommerce, some vendors aren’t just implementing autonomous mobile robotic technology in their distribution centers to alleviate labor challenges. They’re also installing robotic storage systems within their stores to retrieve online orders, which frees up employees for more complicated and customer-facing tasks.
Now, online orders that previously were fulfilled by a distribution center can now be routed to locations that are closer to the customers, reducing shipping time and costs.
But who says that those locations have to be brick-and-mortar stores?
Beyond just the implementation of automated solutions at the retail store level, omni-channel retailers can spread inventory further throughout their network using centralized automation fulfillment hubs–– also known as micr-fulfillment centers (MFCs) –– to fill orders more closely to the customer.
MICRO-FULFILLMENT CENTERS BRIDGE THE GAP
Micro-fulfillment centers employ automated storage and retrieval systems in centralized stations to accommodate any uptick in orders. They can accommodate the demands of both in store and online shoppers, as they are flexible enough to accommodate a rapidly changing environment.
They are also a valuable solution to the issue of unused office and retail space that used to belong to some businesses who went home during the pandemic and never returned. Many retailers are building MFC’s in a dark store or centralized location to support curbside pickup for multiple retail locations.
Typically, most MFCs operate in a reduced footprint area and often utilize goods-to-person automated technology such as automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) and robotics. An MFC “grid” offers very dense storage of products in totes. Oftentimes an employee will stand at the port of a workstation and robotic bins will present products to the employee to fill an order. This type of system allows very rapid order picking, often fulfilling 70% of an order, and maximizing output for the growing demand of online orders. Any remaining items that can’t be fulfilled by the system can then be manually picked by store employees.
With ecommerce and online orders showing no sign of slowing down, it’s key to find a scalable model to integrate automation into grocery and retail locations–– not just for added agility, but to supplement the labor shortage, and to improve the responsibilities and productivity of the employees that are present. The world’s only getting more fast-paced from here.