Will socially distanced shopping launch robot delivery for the masses?

Photo: Starship
Apr 01, 2020
Matthew Stern

The coronavirus pandemic has rendered interaction with other people potentially dangerous and, in some states in the U.S., illegal. In only a few weeks, the necessity to limit human-to-human contact has led to a spike in the trial of services like grocery delivery and pickup. As the crisis wears on, another newer grocery technology could become more prominent thanks to the constraints imposed by social distancing.

The Broad Branch Market in Chevy Chase, Md. has begun utilizing robots for delivery in order to allow customers to get groceries with minimal human interaction, ABC 6 in Philadelphia reported. Customers within a one-mile radius of the store can have their groceries delivered by a 45-pound, knee-high robot on wheels. The service is part of a beta test and is free to customers at present. One customer reported receiving her groceries within 30 minutes with the robot.

While curbside pickup and delivery both can still offer risks if person-to-person contact is not conducted correctly, utilizing delivery robots would remove all possibility of direct contact between grocery store employees and customers.

Pilots of delivery robots and autonomous vehicles for last-mile grocery fulfillment have grown common in the past few years. Tech startups, logistics companies and grocers in the U.S. and internationally have been testing wheeled, mobile cooler-style delivery robots, fully autonomous vehicles and airborne drones. Willingness to allow pilots of different types of robots has varied between municipalities, with some U.S. cities banning or restricting them to particular areas to avoid possible risks to pedestrians.

Grocery is not the only area where there is potential for delivery robots to pick up steam.

With restaurants closed worldwide due to social distancing practices, robotic delivery startup Refraction AI, based in Ann Arbor, MI, has seen an increase in restaurant partners and maxed-out orders from customers, according to Slate. 

In China, robots have also been used for food delivery (as well as for medical supplies) in quarantined areas throughout the course of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a Forbes article. In that case, major companies and startups already working in the delivery robot space scaled up these services to meet the demands of the coronavirus outbreak.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you see robotic delivery taking off in the same way as curbside pickup in response to the coronavirus pandemic? How valuable will customer-facing robots become as the pandemic wears on, and does this service have real value beyond novelty?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"During these challenging times, robotic delivery makes a great deal of sense."
"Robotic delivery works at a hyper local level to provide instant delivery and convenience to consumers and I definitely think it provides value far beyond being a novelty."
"Yes! I do see robotic delivery as a wave of the future – be it flying drones or rolling robots. The only concern is robbery and theft."

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27 Comments on "Will socially distanced shopping launch robot delivery for the masses?"

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Richard Hernandez

I don’t think so… as of this morning, traffic is down in a lot of food retailers due to the extended social distancing restrictions. A lot of the retailers are instituting markers on the store floors and in the aisles to get customers to adhere to the social distancing rules. Robot or autonomous car delivery is still relatively new and not fully tested. I don’t see food retailers investing in this technology right now – it’s too costly and the learning curve would be too steep to implement right away. In a year? Who knows, maybe so.

Bob Phibbs

I do not see it taking off like curbside delivery. I have to buy nothing to do curbside, the tech investment to scale ROI on this is still years away.

Tony Orlando
There is a substantial investment needed to do curbside delivery. First there is the labor to do all the pulling of the product, which is not cheap to do. Where are they going to put the orders, needing to separate frozen, fresh meats, dairy, and produce, and having dry goods for storage as well? Sam’s Club spent a fortune to do BOPIS, and they have cut off online order and pickup as they ran out of room to handle BOPIS. I spoke to a manager last month and she said the storage capacity, which they built from scratch, including a covered area for pick up, and doors to bring out the merchandise are already at capacity. Delivery of groceries has never been profitable, and third-party delivery companies are cherry picking territories that they will deliver to, and the more rural areas are on their own. Robotic delivery is great for small orders in the cities, but a family stocking up could not use this service without a fleet of robots bringing it to your door.… Read more »
Bob Amster

If robot surfaces are capable of carrying the virus, robots would be no more secure than curbside pickup or curbside drop off. If robot deliveries increase after the pandemic, it will be for more than one reason.

Bethany Allee

This has been at the top of my mind because of previous RetailWire features that discuss robot delivery in cities like San Francisco. Cities like San Francisco have more access to robot delivery than any other city in the U.S., and it’s not taking off at this time. Despite the fact that robot delivery makes good sense in this moment in history, it’s not trusted or known. Society is dealing with a lot of newness and change that is outside of their control, I’m not sure they’re going to be open to newness and change where they can control it.

Zel Bianco

During these challenging times, robotic delivery makes a great deal of sense. Robots being able to deliver take out meals in addition to groceries makes them a game changer. Now the question becomes how to program them to go longer distances in and around dense areas with multiple units in each building. I think we are going to need bigger robots!

Cathy Hotka

Broad Branch Market is teeny-tiny and carries few SKUs — I just don’t see this as a model for retail going forward.

Steve Montgomery

My short answer is no, for several reasons. As Bob stated there is the cost of the technology. It is limited in the distance from the store that is realistically serviceable. Then there are other factors such as winter weather and the lack of sidewalks in non-urban environments. Curbside is something that everyone with a car can do.

Dave Bruno

I don’t think this crisis will be the tipping point for robot delivery options. The virus lives on steel and plastic, so robot delivery is only minimally safer than human delivery (if at all), so I don’t expect consumers to push for it. I think retailers – and more accurately, technology – will determine the tipping point for robot delivery: when the costs (and customer benefits) outperform human delivery, we will see a market shift.

Paula Rosenblum

I agree with Bob. Too expensive, and too risky (what happens if one gets in an accident? What if someone tries to steal one?). It could easily become cartoonish.

Keith Anderson

I don’t think it will see anywhere near the level of trial or adoption that curbside pick-up already has during the crisis, but this situation does strike me as a ripe opportunity to continue to test and learn about applications for automation in retail.

In some dense urban areas, demand for delivery has pushed delivery windows out more than a week. There will be labor shortages due to sick employees, and some workers are striking as we speak due to concerns about hazardous work environments and inequitable compensation.

Of course there is investment required, but technology can often be rented as a service, and would typically offset some labor expense.

Harley Feldman

I don’t believe that robotic delivery will take off at the same rate as curbside pickup. Robots have limited delivery area coverage including places the robots cannot drive. Curbside pickup can be done from any location the consumer desires to drive from. Robotic delivery will expand during the pandemic, but as stores and restaurants begin charging for the service, the growth of the robotic delivery will slow. I don’t see this as a huge market.

Brandon Rael

No, not in the short-term as migrating from customer-facing curbside pickup requires a significant technological, infrastructural, process and business model transformation. Companies have to weigh the costs to serve consumers and, with revenues taking a significant hit, migrating to a robotics delivery model is highly ambitious but simply not realistic at this time.

Migrating to a robot delivery model is an evolutionary step that will take years to become our reality.

Ricardo Belmar

While we may see more trials, there are just too many unknown answers to resolve. Robot delivery isn’t a specific solution to a current problem during the pandemic. Delivery robots were meant to solve a different problem. As others here have mentioned, the cost to implement this is still too high. There are risks like theft while on a delivery route, accident mitigation, and also cleaning issues – how is the robot’s surface any better than a person delivering your items, for example? I can see a desire to experiment, but this doesn’t seem like the silver bullet that will make delivery robots (or drones, for that matter) really take off.

Shep Hyken

The coronavirus pandemic is increasing the use of technologies we may have resisted using in the past. My thought about new technologies, or technologies that have been in play but are only used by early adopters, is that in the next three months we will accelerate our use of technology by three years.

Gene Detroyer

There are really two issues here.

The first is if robotic delivery will be “safer” than personal delivery. That is hard to fathom. How many people must touch the product before it even gets put in the robot? And how much virus will remain in the robot as multiple deliveries are made throughout the day? I believe the use of robots with this purpose in mind is more theater than reality.

The second is, will robotic delivery eventually become a norm? It is likely — but not for a long, long time. Robotic delivery is not a short-term solution. And the solution it brings has nothing to do with COVID-19 and everything to do with efficiency and cost.

Did I say “long, long time”?

Liz Crawford

Yes! I do see robotic delivery as a wave of the future – be it flying drones or rolling robots. The only concern is robbery and theft.

Gib Bassett
Robotics is a use case for Artificial Intelligence. Even if a retailer or food service company were to outsource this, which would be necessary except for maybe Amazon or Walmart, you want to control, own and leverage this data – on customer orders, routes, scheduling, and the feedback loop. Also – every justification to integrate with existing customer data programs for loyalty, marketing and service. Having written that – as a use case – I would ensure to prioritize it alongside others within your analytics portfolio. If you look at this solely as a quick gut reaction add on, versus a part of your overall customer experience, you will be disappointed in the results. Last and most important points: Of course not every community will support this – either legally or for safety reasons. However, long-term, it’s going to happen. That alone may not justify this. But think about this. Signaling to your customers and the market you are investing in making it easier to order and receive products can only create good will. Will… Read more »
Rick Moss

To those who see robots as impractical, consider the current alternative in big cities. In New York, bike messengers (increasingly on motorized vehicles) zip down sidewalks, streets and bike lanes causing untold hazards to themselves and pedestrians. The work is horrid, and it’s difficult to imagine a robot wouldn’t be a good investment over time when compared to paying and managing transient workers. Throw in the benefit of greater safety during pandemics, and I’m all in.

Ralph Jacobson

Robotics have been taking on repetitive tasks for years across the retail/CPG/distribution industries. This pandemic has only intensified the need, and I predict businesses will see the productivity benefits of robotics as they are incentivized to integrate them now, but also beyond this crisis. We will also see the rise of new jobs to manage these robots that will far outweigh the loss of those eliminated by these robots.

Verlin Youd

I largely agree with the comments from Bob and Paula. However, as innovation in remote delivery continues and those developing these technologies figure out the business case, the reality of the current pandemic and likelihood of others to follow can be added to the potential ROI. The technology and social acceptance isn’t there yet but is likely to be bolstered by the current coronavirus situation.

Ananda Chakravarty

Robots are still too early in the market to become commonplace. More importantly, curbside has substantial investment already. Though a robot fleet sounds like it would be valuable and potentially safer with appropriate cleaning protocols, there just isn’t enough critical mass for the tech to deliver at this time. Some ways that robotics might be valuable would be in-store back room sorting or delivery preparation, the would have more practical and current applications. I see autonomous vehicles coming before robotic delivery en masse. Over time the tech will become more viable.

Karen S. Herman

Robotic delivery works at a hyper local level to provide instant delivery and convenience to consumers and I definitely think it provides value far beyond being a novelty. It clearly serves as a solution in response to the coronavirus pandemic, as once again, our fast and efficient smartphones enable us to click on a mobile app and use GPS technology to have what we want, delivered when we want it, if the retailer is on the app and part of the robotic delivery program. In the future, I’d love to see small brick and mortar retailers actively beta test this delivery option, at a hyper local level.

Peter Charness

I think there’s a 30, 90, 120 day and longer time horizon that people should be thinking of. Anything that needs to be done in the next 30 days HAS to be done with existing systems and capabilities. Dream big, but act now. Over 90 days it is possible to implement simple novelties, but not complex, capital intensive programs. Hopefully within 90 days we are back on the road to the new normalcy. As to 120 days and longer … that plan starts with the next 30 to 90 days of activities. Unfortunately for most business, the focus needs to be short term and active.

Craig Sundstrom

Unless you’re REALLY pessimistic, i.e you think restrictions will last not weeks or (even) months, but rather years, I don’t see how “taking off” is even possible. It’s not like there’s some hidden army of these little fellows just waiting for their duty call; more would need to be built, they would need to be sold, then delivered. Here in California, that isn’t even possible right now.

Will it be attractive after this is over? Perhaps, but the many technical and capacity limitations still remain, and as I’ve said before, many of us will be eager to shake the first hand we see … not reach down and pet a moving box.

John Karolefski

If the cost is not excessive and current tests are successful, robots will be part of the mix for delivering groceries after the pandemic. More curb-side pick up will continue to take place, too. A new normal is being created.

David Naumann

There will definitely be an increased focus on investing in automation as a result of the current coronavirus pandemic. However, robotic delivery will still be a slow evolution based on the cost and complexities that still need to be ironed out to improve the effectiveness of the systems. Once the pandemic is under control, for the most part, consumers will forget about the past risks and probably welcome social interaction with store associates. Robotics probably have more long-term opportunities for delivery and warehouse activities than to replace humans for customer service.

"During these challenging times, robotic delivery makes a great deal of sense."
"Robotic delivery works at a hyper local level to provide instant delivery and convenience to consumers and I definitely think it provides value far beyond being a novelty."
"Yes! I do see robotic delivery as a wave of the future – be it flying drones or rolling robots. The only concern is robbery and theft."

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