Supermarket uses robots to search for products

As of: February 24, 2024 3:29 p.m

In some supermarkets, customers can have robots help them when they search for products. Self-service checkouts are clearly in vogue. How far is retail automation going?

By David Zajonz and Rolf Heutmann, WDR

The new colleague is “particularly friendly,” jokes market manager Lars Gilke. “He’s never in a bad mood, he’s always active from morning to evening,” he says of the robot, which has been there since the end of last year drives through his supermarket.

Customers can use a touchpad to tell the service robot which product they are looking for. The robot then personally brings them to the appropriate shelf. “It’s been very well received,” says Gilke, who runs a Rewe store in Ahlen, North Rhine-Westphalia.

“At most a gimmick”

However, the robot cannot do much more than show the way and provide information about current offers. “Something like this is a gimmick at best,” is the clear verdict of Stephan Rüschen, professor of food retail at the Baden-Württemberg Cooperative State University (DHBW) in Heilbronn. “Grocery shopping should be quick and efficient,” says Rüschen. A service robot has no relevant use. “When there’s a lot going on, he can actually be annoying because he’ll be in the way.”

The fact that robots don’t have a great future can be seen from the fact that no large retail chain is using them across the board, says the retail expert.

Robots to combat staff shortages?

The German Trade Association (HDE) is a little more merciful towards the robots. With a view to the staff shortage in the industry, they could “certainly be helpful in some places,” says Stephan Tromp, deputy general manager of the HDE. The association does not have figures on how many such robots are already in use nationwide.

Market manager Gilke himself sees the service robot only as a supplement and not as a replacement for human workers. “It’s a help and a support. A funny gag that you can have fun with.” Children especially enjoyed playing with the robot, he says.

Self-checkout lanes on the rise

In other areas of retail, however, technical conversions can actually save personnel. The number of self-checkout cash registers that do not require a cashier more than doubled across Germany between 2021 and 2023. According to the EHI Retail Institute, there are 9,600 such checkouts in food retail alone across Germany. In contrast, there are still around 230,000 conventional cash registers. Even if the proportion of self-checkout lanes is still small, the trend is clear.

But saving staff is not the retailers’ primary goal, according to retail expert Rüschen: “It’s about maintaining the stores in view of the staff shortage and maintaining the long opening hours.”

“Unmanned” shops in the countryside

There are also increasingly supermarkets that operate without sales staff, especially in rural areas. “Tante-M” operates – with a focus on Baden-Württemberg – more than 40 such “village shops” with a small range of everyday products. Customers only pay at self-service checkouts. The competitors “Aunt Enso” and “Tegut” have similar concepts.

“Unmanned stores fill a gap in rural areas where local supplies do not exist or no longer exist,” says retail expert Rüschen. But that is a niche. He doesn’t think it’s realistic that large supermarkets will be able to manage without sales staff in the foreseeable future.

One of the reasons for this is that the most modern version of such stores is expensive and complex because it requires numerous cameras and sensors. The “complete automation of a supermarket” is a financial challenge, according to the HDE industry association. Stores where customers can simply walk out without even checking out are still a rarity. Despite all the innovations, the conventional supermarket with human sales staff remains the measure of all things.

source site