The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has had a tremendous ripple affect across the grocery industry, from the way consumers shop to how retailers are adapting to increased demand. A massive rise in both in-store and online shopping have created staffing challenges across stores and fulfillment centers. Individuals working in the food industry have suddenly found themselves on the frontline of an essential service that is struggling to keep pace with an unprecedented health issue. In response to COVID-19, some retailers are increasing their staff, modifying store hours, and enhancing safety precautions at checkout. These challenges all point towards one solution – more automation.

Over the last few years retailers have been working to introduce more automation into the consumer shopping experience, from digital coupons to the adoption of online ordering. This innovation is now paying dividends as consumers take advantage of online options to reduce as many physical touchpoints as possible. Gary Hawkins, CEO of the Center for Advancing Retail and Technology, told Winsight Grocery Business (WGB), “There is no doubt that people staying in and ordering online is already overwhelming every food retailer. There is no question this is going to drive adoption of online shopping, but stores need help managing and fulfilling orders efficiently. They need help managing curbside pickup, home delivery and last-mile solutions.”

One way that retailers are meeting the increased demand in online shopping is by reducing store hours. The extra time gives staff an opportunity to clean and replenish shelves, but also an opportunity to ready pickup orders for the next day. Some U.S. retailers are taking automation to new heights, operating in-store robotic pickup centers. The use of automated machinery to fulfill pickup orders improves efficiency and eases stress on workforces during difficult times like these. Mohamed Ali Vaid, VP of commercial acceleration for Dematic (an Atlanta based logistics firm), told WGB, “Automation technology will enable grocers to create more capacity in their supply chains to better respond and weather major disruptions that increase demand, similar to what we’re seeing today.”

Stores like QuickEats, an unmanned, self-service grocery store, provide a blueprint for retailers looking to minimize touchpoints across their locations. QuickEats, which recently opened in Orange County, California, uses computer vision technologies to track which items a consumer leaves the store with, then charges them through an app and the unique consumer ID they received upon entering the store. The store uses Androit Worldwide Medias AWM Frictionless technology, and their SMART SHELF technology, to create a shopping experience void of touchpoints. This technology feels like the ubiquitous self-checkout option, but without the need for consumers to scan each of their items prior to leaving the store. 

Without a doubt, the COVID-19 crisis will forever change the way consumers and retailers look at the grocery industry. As to how much this healthcare crisis will accelerate the adoption of automation into supermarkets and convenience stores across the U.S. has yet to be seen. For now, we can only do the best we can with the systems we have in place. As we transition back to the normalcy of everyday life, hopefully sooner than later, the value of automation, especially during times of crisis, will be a significant consideration for anyone involved in the grocery industry.