In Osaka, Japan, a slender, dark-haired woman selects items from the grocery store shelves, scans a barcode from each selection, and places it in a hand-carried basket. She then takes her items to a checkout, places the basket into a receptacle on the checkout counter. Using the kiosk at the counter she pays for the goods, the bottom of the basket slides open, and the grocery items fall into the basket. The kiosk dispenses a receipt strip, and the counter opens to reveal the purchases tidily bagged and ready to go.
Stores such as Walmart have had self-checkout counters for several years now. These are often clustered in one area, watched over by one clerk who keeps an eye on customer behavior and troubleshoots the machines. Panasonic’s checkout system will soon be fully automated, no longer requiring customers to scan their purchases. Electronic tags will be quickly read by the basket, creating a more fully hands-off approach. But this is only a small part of what’s to come.
Grocery Warehouse Automation
Bloomberg Weekly recently published an article that suggests that the Panasonic checkout system isn’t a patch on what’s to come. In a warehouse outside London, Ocado’s grocery robots zip up and down warehouse shelves of groceries. Sam Chambers, the author of the article, describes the robots as a sort of cross between R2-D2 and a dorm refrigerator. The operation belongs to Ocado Group Plc, an up-and-coming online grocery provider. CEO Tim explained that the technology didn’t exist when they started up the company, so they had to design all of it from scratch.
Ocado’s Robots to Cross the Ocean
Ocado’s robotic warehouse has caught the eye of American grocery giant, Kroger. They were unworried by the online trade until Amazon, that had already made serious inroads into Barnes and Noble, to say nothing of small, local bookstores, recently introduced a grocery line into their already extensive variety of merchandise. Kroger and similar grocery stores had thought their arena safe from Amazon since groceries are different from other types of merchandise. But modern containers and transportation might be quickly changing all of that. Kroger’s goal is to take consumer orders and deliver merchandise to homes within an hour of ordering. Other than that, they are playing their cards very close to the vest as to exactly how their system will work.
Food and the Future
Merchandising and transporting groceries have already changed the way people eat in industrialized urban areas. Should we expect even more changes? Pre-chopped “dinner in a box” is already available from fresh food delivery services in many areas. Will we soon see door-step delivery of foods that are ready to prepare, or even that have already been prepared?
Some people worry about what this will do to jobs. Already many entry-level positions have been taken over by robots. Will cashier positions go the same way? A small store owner in Osaka says no, that the human component is an important part of the shopping experience. But a store in Seattle is planning to open with only three staff to run it. We will just have to wait and see.