Retail Customer Experience: Witron system aims to fully automate shelf replenishment
By James Bickers, Editor,
Retail Customer Experience
Through a special arrangement,
presented here for discussion is an excerpt of a current article from Retail
Customer Experience, a daily news portal devoted to helping retailers differentiate
the shopping experience.
there is anything more frustrating to a customer than an empty shelf,
perhaps it is tripping over the employee who is cutting open case boxes
of products and trying to fill that shelf. Both headaches would become
distant memories if the German logistics company Witron is
successful with its new SRS, or Shelf Replenishment System.
“A lot of grocery
stores are open 24 hours, so when do you really get to replenish the shelves?” asked
Brian Sherman, business development manager for Witron, which develops and deploys automated warehouse picking
solutions for Kroger, Supervalu and others. “Sometimes there are stock-outs
during the day and you need to get people to replenish, and now you’re
in the way of the shoppers. We say, let machines do the replenishing, and
do it from the backside.”
The SRS uses an intricate
series of conveyor belts, lifts and sensors to bring products out of the
backroom, up into the air, across the store, then down behind the appropriate
shelf. Once the products are lined up with their shelf, another conveyor
belt kicks in to push them forward, which in turn pushes the boxes and
cans already on the shelf to the front – in effect, causing all products
to be perfectly faced at all times.
An employee in the back
room receives a notification when a certain item has fallen below a predetermined
stock level; he then retrieves the needed quantity of that product, scans
it, then puts it into the conveyor system. The product is delivered and
stocked, invisible to any shoppers that might be in the aisle.
Obviously, such a system
will never be right for a whole store – big bags of dog food and
fresh produce will always need to be stocked by human hands.
“But when you’re
talking canned goods, cereals, even drink products – these types
of things have good stability, they won’t tip over, they won’t get messy
or break,” said Mr. Sherman. “I’d estimate maybe half of the
store might be applicable for this.” Two
major European supermarkets are considering test installations of the system.
He said he sees potential
for the technology in small and discount retailers –
like shoe stores or small apparel stores, for instance – which usually
have only one or two people working at any given time. “These types
of stores have very disorganized back rooms, so we would be able to make
it a very efficient back room,” he said. “One person puts the product
on the machine, and then he doesn’t have to be walking a cart or a pallet
through the aisles.”
Despite some concerns
expressed by observers about ROI, the complexity involved, and its usefulness
across retail formats, Witron is optimistic.
“This is still a
dream, but we’re hoping,” Mr. Sherman said. “We’ve been able
to pull off miracles before.”
What’s the likelihood that automatic shelf replenishment will one day
be a major inventory fill-in tool for retailers? What concerns would
you have over the technology and its relevance for retail?