Retailers are increasingly seeking to improve operational efficiency through robots to carry out tasks such as micro-fulfillment operations, inventory management, cleaning, and customer assistance. Pressure to enter the e-commerce market, optimize efficiency, and increase sales drives demand for retail robots. Advancement in sensor technology and retail availability of advanced chips facilitates adoption of these technologies. The Covid-19 pandemic has further fueled adoption of retail robots as a solution for improving in-store sanitation and inventory management with minimal employee contact.
A surge in online retail sales and increased demand for rapid delivery during the pandemic expedited retailers’ adoption of automated micro-fulfillment technology
Demand for retail robots is rising based on reduced staff in most retail areas and the need for contactless services such as sanitization and inventory management.
Brain Corp’s robotic scrubbers’ usage rose 11.5% Year-over-Year (YoY) during the first three quarters of 2020.
Retail giants including Walmart, Kroger, and Tesco have significantly expanded their in-store robotics fleets to improve inventory management with less human contact
The majority of incumbents and disruptors in the retail robotics space provide offerings in inventory management. The micro-fulfillment segment is witnessing increased interest and several companies are entering the market through partnerships with retailers. Incumbents are likely to gain access to technology through acquisition and partnerships as well as development of in-house technology. The majority of disruptors develop proprietary technology in-house.
Among the startups supplying micro-fulfillment centers, Takeoff Technologies has already made strides, forming at least 10 sales partnerships—including three overseas. Fabric is the next most active disruptor in terms of US partnerships with retailers such as FreshDirect. Newer companies such as Ohi have also been able to expand their operations by forming partnerships with companies such as OUAI and Olipop.
On the inventory robotics side, Simbe Robotics (Tally) has gained significant traction through sales partnerships with Schnucks Markets and Decathlon as well as through an agreement with SoftBank Robotics and several other companies to market its products internationally. Bossa Nova Robotics is also a notable inventory robot disruptor due to its partnerships formed with several large scale retailers such as Albertsons. However, its flagship inventory tracking partnership with Walmart was canceled in November 2020.
Based in France, Exotec Solutions develops an automated order picking system named "Skypod" for retailers, which is capable of prioritizing orders for optimum responsiveness by automating the movement of goods from bin storage to workstation. The company’s Astar software uses mathematical models to control their fleet of robots which carry the bins, to ensure continuous activity. The Skypod system can be integrated with the rest of the warehouse logistics chain or used as a stand alone fulfillment system. Some of the company’s customers include Cdiscounts, Carrefour, E-leclerc, Showroomprive, and Gap Inc.
In May 2021, the company announced the progression of its partnership with Advanced Handling Systems (AHL), a provider of material handling and storage systems, to develop an apparel fulfillment process for Ariat International, a manufacturer of apparel, footwear, and belts. AHS will integrate Exotec’s “Skypod” system to optimize Ariat’s omnichannel apparel fulfillment process. Exotec has signed up Comoto Holdings, an omni-channel platform for powersports aftermarket-products, Turn 14 Distribution, an automotive performance warehouse distributor, and Gymshark, British apparel retailer, as customers through AHS. AHS first introduced Exotec Solution products in the US in 2019 and works as the leading provider of Exotec's solution in North America.
In January 2022, the company raised USD 335 million in Series D funding led by Goldman Sachs bringing the total funding to USD 448 million and valuing the company at USD 2 billion. The funds were expected to be used to hire 500 engineers by 2025 and continue its expansion drive in North America.
Most incumbents already operate as business-to-business robotic providers with acquisitions and partnerships used as the most common market entry strategies Most retail robotics industry incumbents develop technology in-house or partner with companies that provide related services to obtain and co-develop their technology. Most of these companies already operate as established robotic suppliers focusing on the business-to-business (B2B) market. There are also some retailers—such as Amazon and Ocado—who have developed their own technology, especially in the micro-fulfillment area, while also selling their technology to other retailers. Several incumbents such as FANUC Corporation and Vargo that were already developing robots in related areas such as warehouse robots have recognized the opportunity and entered the micro-fulfillment space.
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