Price Check on Aisle 3: Retailers Turn to Robots to Manage Inventory

Inventory management is crucial to operating a successful retail operation. And as hard as it may be to believe, retailers “don’t really know what’s on the shelves,” says Sarjoun Skaff, founder and CTO of Bossa Nova Robotics.

A combination of the sheer number of products a retailer like Walmart has on offer and the pace of 24/7 shopping makes it very difficult to maintain real-time inventories. “If it isn’t on the shelf, the shopper can’t buy it,” Skaff adds.

Bossa Nova, along with San Francisco-based Simbe Robotics, is among a group of tech companies that are using robotics and artificial intelligence to essentially surveil store shelves, making note of what products need restocking, whether prices are accurate, and other inventory-related actions. “We help retailers understand the state of the store and give actionable information to employees,” he says.

The companies’ robots roam store aisles taking high-resolution images that are overlaid with data from the store’s inventory. The idea is to produce what Skaff calls a 3D model of what’s on and missing from shelves, and where the products are placed. “Now, employees know what’s wrong on a shelf and can spend their time to fix it,” Skaff says.

Not knowing which products and how much of them are on the shelves costs retailers $1.1 trillion annually worldwide—or the GDP of Australia, according to IHL, a Tennessee firm that specializes in retail and hospitality research.

And the rapid adoption by retailers of “click it and pick it” services, where shoppers make purchases online and then pick the items up in the store, makes having an accurate and real-time inventory crucial.

The merging of physical and digital shopping means “people going into stores need to know where the product is on shelves and to get to that product as quickly as possible,” says Brad Bogolea, Simbe’s founder and CEO. “If the website says it’s in-store, but the product is not actually on shelves, that service can’t pick up the product for customers.”

Retailers are already showing interest in the robots. Pittsburgh, PA, and San Francisco-based Bossa Nova is working with Walmart in a pilot program that has put the company’s robot in 50 stores nationwide. Target is one of eight retailers that have worked with Simbe, which makes a “shelf-auditing robot” named Tally. In both cases, the robots roam store aisles during business hours, making note of empty shelves, misplaced or mispriced items, and other inventory-related data.

“Because most of these stores sell many packaged goods, the store is always undergoing very constant change,” Bagolea says. “And it’s very challenging for us as humans to actually keep up with all the dynamic changes, so the robot … Next Page »

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