A robot whose designer and seller says is built like a “very lean football tight end” spends 12 hours a day photo-scanning the shelves at Woodman’s Market to track misplaced or mispriced products, inventory gaps and out-of-stock items.
The 6-foot-4-inch, 130-pound robot doesn’t get tired except when it needs a battery recharge. It’s quiet and polite—almost meek—as it pivots on its wheeled base to avoid bumping into people and then sinks back into its automated duties.
Under a partnership with retail tech developer Badger Technologies, Janesville-based Woodman’s has begun deploying autonomous robots into store aisles to conduct price and inventory checks and instantly share data with managers of supermarkets that can stock up to 100,000 different products.
That’s tedious grunt work that has long been the bane of grocery store employees, but it’s becoming more important as inventory becomes a bigger juggling act for stores amid a surge in online shopping and curbside pickup.
As it turns out, the robots don’t mind doing a job that few employees relish.
And they’re good at their work. Very good.
“Yesterday, I watched one of the robots detect a box of Honey Maid graham crackers down to the flavor,” said Tyler Davis, a technology project coordinator for Woodman’s.
“There is one little square on a Honey Maid graham cracker box that says it’s cinnamon-flavored or it’s low fat or whatever flavor. The robot was able to read down to that description on the branding on the box and tell us that a box of crackers was the wrong flavor of product stocked in the wrong place. In 0.2 seconds. It’s kind of amazing.”
Badger’s shelf-scanning robots are slated to roll out in five Woodman’s stores within a few months, and they might be in all locations—including Janesville—by the end of this year, said Clint Woodman, president of Woodman’s Market.
Woodman said customers are still getting used to seeing the robots at the stores in Sun Prairie and Lakemoor, Illinois, where they’ve been deployed.
“Initially, the customers look at and wonder what the heck is it doing?” Woodman said. “Some people think that it’s a security robot, you know, that’s watching them. But that’s not at all the case. It’s actually at work, going about its tasks.”
Woodman and Davis say the robot and its companion technology allow Woodman’s to track—at any time of day or night—which items are out of stock, which items found their way onto the wrong shelves, and which must be replenished more frequently.
It takes a long time for employees to do such inventory work, and most dislike the job, Woodman said, because it’s “tedious and mundane.”
But it’s become a more important consideration as grocery stores have had to manage the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on their in-store stock and supply chain.
The pandemic notwithstanding, grocery stores have begun dramatic shifts in how they serve customers. They now cater to a mix of in-store customers and third-party shelf-pickers who fulfill online and curbside orders for customers who prefer not to shop in person.
That makes technology that can meticulously check shelves for product gaps more valuable and useful, Woodman and Davis said.
If you’re looking for one of Woodman’s new robots, don’t expect to see an android similar to “Star Wars’” gold-colored C-3PO ambling around the aisles in a red grocer’s apron. Badgers’ robots don’t look humanoid.
They’re actually a self-propelled set of sensors and cameras set on a pole-like structure that’s tall enough to scan 7-foot grocery shelves from top to bottom.
Shaped like a stovepipe, they’re featureless, sleek and matte gray, with a blue beacon to help shoppers notice their approach.
The robots use light-sensitive sonar sensors to detect people nearby. If a shopper is close, the robot will move out of the way and focus on a different task in the aisle. It’s a bit of hardwired supermarket etiquette that Badger Technologies CEO Tim Rowland calls “courtesy and politeness.”
In the past few years, Woodman’s has experimented with self-scanning checkout and automatic checkout scanners.
Woodman said such technological changes in stores, including the use of robots, aren’t maneuvers to replace human employees with automated technology.
“These advancements make our employees available to do other, higher-priority things in the store,” Woodman said. “No one is losing their job over it.”