Hungry? Grocers Experiment with Robot Delivery Services


We have all heard the discussions of drone delivery and driverless cars permeating our cities, now automated delivery has become a reality in London. Tesco, Britain's largest supermarket retailer has successfully tested robotic delivery of groceries in central London.

The robot developed by Starship Technologies is capable of delivering less than 20 grocery items in under an hour within a three-mile radius of a Tesco store. The robots can navigate streets and pedestrians to get to their destination and notify the buyer they are at the door, via an app on their phone. The units are temperature controlled and provide anti-theft capabilities. Each robot is monitored from the Tesco delivery center, and the buyer can monitor the progress of their order from their phone. Currently, the robot is accompanied by a human handler to help it navigate traffic signals and cross the street.

This solution provides a low-cost, fast, and simple alternative to traditional grocery delivery for consumers, especially in cities where purchases tend to be smaller because of limited storage space. The robot will not need a parking space or a licensed driver and many of the other factors that add cost to a traditional human delivery of groceries. Tesco is trying to compete with not only its traditional grocery competitors, but with Amazon that is expanding across the UK. Amazon is testing same-day grocery delivery and drone delivery in Cheshire, England. Another British grocer, Ocado is testing driverless grocery delivery vans and plans to roll out the delivery service later this year.

The Tesco robot can face challenges, it is limited to areas where extreme weather is not an issue, and the robots currently need handlers to cross city streets. However, the tests that Tesco has conducted in London have been largely successful from April 2017 through June 2017, and the company plans to offer the delivery option in a limited test.

(Image: Starship Technologies)

(Image: Starship Technologies)

This robot solution removes many of the safety concerns associated with flying drones, but it could still present the company with challenges if the robot malfunctions in traffic, cause an unaware pedestrian to trip, or becomes the victim of pranksters. The robots are equipped with security, and cameras and are monitored from the stores from which they are dispatched. Today, the robot has a handler that can address challenges as it makes its way to its destination, but if the handler disappears the robot could become much more vulnerable.

Critics are already citing robots as the source of job loss, taking jobs from humans who would deliver groceries. The small delivery focus of the Tesco robot, however, supplements many of the traditional grocery delivery options where consumers often place bigger orders to offset the delivery cost. Getting a small number of groceries by robot could help Tesco capture some of the market that currently goes to convenience stores, increasing its overall bottom line. Large deliveries would still need humans and trucks, as are used today.

What do you think, would you order your groceries for delivery via robot? Are you concerned about the analytics the robots use to navigate to their destination? Do you think it's a safety issue?

Maryam Donnelly, VP Marketing Services, Impact Marketing

Maryam Donnelly is Vice President of Marketing Services at Impact Marketing. She has spent more than 15 years leading marketing strategy, communications, product marketing, market research, and business development at Fortune 500 companies including Prudential Insurance, Automatic Data Processing, and Travelport (formerly Cendant). She has been a principal at Impact Marketing, a boutique marketing services company based in the New York metro area, for the past five years. Impact Marketing provides the spectrum of businesses with strategic marketing consulting services including marketing planning, marketing communications, marketing management, and analysis. Maryam holds a BBA and MBA in marketing from Hofstra University. She can be reached at maryam@feeltheimpactnow.com.

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Re: Amazing
  • 10/19/2017 4:36:41 PM
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Maryam writes "Eventually, I think they hope these robots will be able to travel alone ...."

Yeah, I certainly hope so too. Needing a handler definitely seems to defeat the basic idea of a robot.

Maryam continues:

I personally think they need to be taller to avoid issues with traffic and pedestrians but we will see if they are able to navigate streets and if regulators approve them in city areas.

As I commented earlier, currently they seem designed to work in constrained, very dense inner-city areas with short, easy-to-nevigate sidewalk distances between stores and customers. However, I'd predict that to be truly cost-effective they will need to be able to travel longer distances between, say, big-box stores and suburban homes or offices.

For this, I'd envision a combo of robocar (i.e., totally autonomous vehicle) with the smaller robot aboard. When the robocar arrives at the destination, the delivery robot would dismount to provide the shorter delivery connection directly to the customer.

 

Re: Amazing
  • 10/18/2017 1:17:55 PM
NO RATINGS

Eventually, I think they hope these robots will be able to travel alone, I personally think they need to be taller to avoid issues with traffic and pedestrians but we will see if they are able to navigate streets and if regulators approve them in city areas.

Re: Amazing
  • 10/18/2017 1:16:07 PM
NO RATINGS

Lyndon today the handler avoids such issues but I agree it will tough for the robot to predict human behavior in crowded cities. Time will tell how broad reaching this will become.

Re: Amazing
  • 10/18/2017 8:16:46 AM
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Because there is a human "handler" accompanying the robot I wonder if a bicycle courier might be able to do the same job? It still seems a bit premature to have robots delivering groceries except for the public relations and publicity factor.

Re: Amazing
  • 10/17/2017 1:10:38 PM
NO RATINGS

Maryam explains that "the devices are equipped with security and are monitored until they reach their recipient."

I'm thinking of situations like dingbat drivers, especially the ones in big pickups, making right turns on red ...  and I'm imagining lots of crunching sounds as little robots below the line of sight get squashed by cars and trucks making unexpected quick right turns.

I'm also thinking about all the highly motivated young devils that are extremely creative in finding ways to sabotage sophisticated technical devices found throughout the cityscape ...

 

Re: Amazing
  • 10/17/2017 11:04:42 AM
NO RATINGS

Seth the idea for Tesco was to permeate the fast need market. They already have a service for big orders which typically requires more time to pick and deliver. We have all been there we are short a few items in between grocery runs or get sick and need a few items delivered. In this situation we might go to a convenience store, drug store etc. and the supermarket loses that revenue. This is a way to erode the convenience store pickup market.

Re: Amazing
  • 10/17/2017 11:01:01 AM
NO RATINGS

Lyndon the devices are equipped with security and are monitored until they reach their recipient. For those in the multilevel dwelling, they receive a notification on their smart phone that lets them know the robot is there!

Re: Amazing
  • 10/16/2017 4:59:53 PM
NO RATINGS

Seth writes "I think it will be great for cities where it is more difficult for people to have a car and for those with physical limitations. "

My own guess is that this technology might work in fairly confined urban areas (e.g., downtowns and center-cities near downtown) with high-density housing (e.g., condos, flats, maybe townhouses), plenty of sidewalks, and well-controlled road traffic. I assume the problem of accessing upper-story condos and apartments has been solved, since it would seem difficult for the little robot to find the customer's name and press the open-door button downstairs. (Probably would notify you via smartphone.)

Nevertheless, I'd not be shocked if there's a fairly high mortality of these gizmos, partly from vandalism but more seriously from the traffic war zone occurring in many U.S. streets.

 

Re: Walking in LA
  • 10/16/2017 3:46:02 PM
NO RATINGS

@ T. Sweeney,  I don't know  much about robots in Los Angeles.  But I do know Los Angeles  has never been a pedestrian friendly city.  Also there have been a few reports of robots being vandalized,  sometimes by drunk indiviudals. 

Re: Amazing
  • 10/16/2017 3:31:07 PM
NO RATINGS

@Ariella, I get the convenience of the service and the appeal for some because of life style demands but I question whether the growth ceiling is high enough. There is an explosion of farmers market here in the San Francisco Bay area that are well attended by the very techy crowd that boast of time constraints. Is this convenient for convenience sake or a true need? If not a true need, then it will be short lived. Only my observation and opinion.

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