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Robot workers will soon be roaming the aisles at Schnucks stores

Robot workers will soon be roaming the aisles at Schnucks stores

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A slender robot named Tally soon will be roaming the aisles at select Schnucks groceries, on the lookout for out-of-stock items and verifying prices.

Tally doesn’t have limbs but has two blinking eyes on a digital screen to make the robot appear friendly. Its base is 38 inches tall and an extension can make it stretch taller to scan out-of-reach shelves with cameras atop a circular base that resembles a Roomba vacuum.

Maryland Heights-based Schnuck Markets, which operates 100 stores in five states, on Monday will begin testing its first Tally at its store at 6600 Clayton Road in Richmond Heights. The pilot test is expected to last six weeks. A second Tally will appear in coming weeks at Schnucks stores at 1060 Woods Mill Road in Town and Country and at 10233 Manchester Road in Kirkwood.

The robots are the first test of the technology in Missouri and could ultimately be expanded to more Schnucks stores.

Each 30-pound robot is equipped with sensors to help it navigate the store’s layout and avoid bumping into customers’ carts. When it detects product areas that aren’t fully stocked, the data is shared with store management staff so the retailer can make changes, said Dave Steck, Schnuck Markets’ vice president of IT and infrastructure.

The primary focus of the data collection is to determine the store’s in-stock position, but other shelf data such as price errors may also be examined.

“This is a big learning experience for us to really understand what the capability is,” Steck said. Large, consumer packaged-goods companies provide the primary funding source for the technology.

San Francisco-based Simbe Robotics touts the machine’s ability to streamline store performance, increase sales and cut expenses. Providing a way to more quickly identify low-stocked items and price errors frees up staff to focus on customer service, Simbe’s CEO Brad Bogolea told the Post-Dispatch.

Founded in 2014, Simbe has placed Tally robots in mass merchants, dollar stores and groceries across the country, including some Target stores in San Francisco last year.

“The goal of Tally is to create more of a feedback mechanism,” Bogolea said. “Although most retailers have good supply chain intelligence, and point-of-sale data on what they’ve sold, what’s challenging for retailers is understanding the true state of merchandise on shelves. Everyone sees value in higher quality, more frequent information across the entire value chain.”

The robot does take breaks. When Tally senses it’s low on power, it finds its way to a charging dock. And, the robot is designed to stay out of the way of customers. If it detects a congested area, it’ll return to the aisle when it’s less busy. If a shopper approaches the robot, it’s programmed to stop moving.

Simbe also uses fleet management tools to monitor its robots to detect if the robot has been picked up or moved. “We know if someone has bumped into the robot,” Bogolea said. A Simbe representative will be on-site at Schnucks stores during the pilot phase.

The data Tally collects may prove useful to those studying retail analytics. Schnuck Markets and Simbe have had preliminary talks with officials at Washington University about having students study the collected data.

“Robots have the ability to gather information about what goes on in an environment,” said Aaron Bobick, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Washington University, who studies human-robot collaboration. “And business is all about converting data into intelligence.”

Until recently, businesses have mostly tapped into industrial robotics, or robots that aren’t in real world situations with shoppers, such as car manufacturers using robots to assemble vehicles.

Faced with pressure from Amazon, retailers including Wal-Mart Stores have begun using robots to perform tasks such as counting cash.

Schnucks’ testing of robots situated in the physical world, an example of service robotics, will become more prevalent in the future, Bobick said.

“Of course they will because they work,” Bobick said. “These are tasks performed by only modestly intelligent machines. Robots tend to be less expensive than people and they can gather data at a ferocious rate. Plus, they’re not going to get tired.”

Schnuck Markets’ Steck said the robot pilot is not a job-cutting measure. “This is not to displace jobs,” he said. “It still takes someone to order (merchandise), receive it from the warehouse and ultimately to stock it. There are no arms or legs on this robot.”

Schnuck Markets has made other recent tech investments, including partnering with Instacart in February to offer online ordering and delivery. Since the initial rollout in St. Louis, delivery has expanded to more than 90 percent of Schnucks stores.

The grocery chain also switched networks at all of its St. Louis stores over the past year and a half to enable faster Wi-Fi speeds for customers’ smartphones and tablets.

“Schnucks has been incredibly progressive from a grocery perspective, and we see them as a great partner,” Simbe’s Bogolea said.

Lisa Brown • 314-340-8127

@lisabrownstl on Twitter

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