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The global COVID-19 pandemic has affected retail in ways that are only just beginning to be analyzed and understood. Businesses have gained a greater appreciation for the potential benefits of automation, particularly for online grocery orders, according to Fabric Ltd.
Fabric, which uses mobile robots with its proprietary software stack, deploys micro-fulfillment centers for grocery, general merchandise, and business-to-business (B2B) customers. The Tel Aviv-based company was founded in 2015 and raised $110 million in Series B funding last October.
Prior to the novel coronavirus outbreak, online grocery sales represented 5% of the business in the U.S., reported Deutsche Bank Research. With the growth of online ordering during the pandemic, that amount could exceed 10% by the end of this year, Fabric said in its report, “The Impact of COVID-19 on Online Grocery.” It surveyed 1,000 consumers on how their shopping behavior has changed.
Online grocery orders accelerate
E-commerce has been growing steadily, increasing demand for robots to meet consumer expectations. However, “I have never seen before what has happened in the past few months, thrusting the industry five years into the future,” said Steve Hornyak, chief commercial officer at Fabric. “I’ve been a retail CPG [consumer packaged goods] guy for 30 years, and I’ve never seen a bigger total adjustable market.”
“Online grocery and general merchandise orders need robotics to keep up with demand, velocity, and quality,” he told The Robot Report. “Then, to get products closer to customers and get to the one-day norm that Amazon has driven, you need micro-fulfillment centers rather than big warehouses at the edge of cities.”
“Grocery was affected most by the pandemic,” said Hornyak. “Online orders were less than 5% of total sales, then they peaked at 20% to 30% with ‘click and collect.’ Growth that was projected to take five years took five weeks.”
“At under 5%, grocery chains could lose money and outsource to Instacart,” he said. “At 10% to 20%, they can’t afford to give customers to outsourcers. You have to automate.”
“Grocery stores could become like giant vending machines, with automated picking, totes, and lifting robots that bring groceries to a delivery van or your own car,” Hornyak said. “We’ve got a customer right now whose e-commerce orders won’t be touched by a human from the on-demand tote to a self-service drive-through, which will be here early next year.”
U.K.-based grocery chain Ocado Group PLC raised $1.27 billion this week and has partnered with Kroger on automated distribution centers (DCs), but a centralized approach is “rubbish,” said Hornyak. “Grocery and all retailers need to get closer to customers.”
From shopping malls to micro-fulfillment centers
“I know Fabric investors Scott Brady, managing partner at Innovation Partners, and Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google,” recalled Hornyak. “Scott recommended that I stop in Tel Aviv on my way back from India, and I visited a micro-fulfillment center in a former Adidas store. Fabric’s engineering team was right in the eye of the tornado, and I saw the future of e-commerce on-demand order fulfillment.”
“Fabric is primarily a software maker, with robots to order,” he explained. “With a systems operating center, people can remotely operate and monitor dozens or hundreds of robots. We have one 6,000-sq.-ft. site shipping 600 to 1,200 orders today with four operators and one supervisor. We make it easy for operators to get set up, and people are excited about learning new skills.”
“Grocery stores already have a distribution network, but for many retailers, we can help create a node with enabling technology,” Hornyak sad. “Let’s not build a 250,000-sq.-ft. regional distribution center; let’s do a 5,000-sq.-ft. micro-fulfillment center. They can have one pallet-based DC, while our software manages the local network on demand in our ecosystem for ‘click to doorstep.'”
“The pandemic has thrust us into the future as well,” he added. “A nine-to-12-month sales cycle is now three to six months or even less. Online grocery and other companies that were thinking of doing something automated next year now have the money and mandates to go now. Fabric has had to hire to accelerate scaling and supply chain execution across the board, as business has doubled.”
“Even existing grocery and big-box stores, if they have 12-to-16-ft. ceilings and can carve out 5,000 to 6,000 sq. ft., they can have a micro-fulfillment operation,” Hornyak said. “People are looking at buying or converting real estate for next-generation 3PL [third-party logistics] to survive. We’re talking with a bunch of mall operators, which could operate micro-fulfillment centers as joint sites for ‘click and collect’ or ‘click and deliver.'”
‘Chaotically controlled growth’
As both the online grocery business and automation providers such as Fabric scale up to meet demand, they will need strategic partnerships, acknowledged Hornyak.
“We know we’re not going to be in this alone; to play nice, we have REST APIs on the front end for inventory lookup, order entry, and coordinating with outbound shipping, last-mile delivery, or click and collect,” he said. “We’re also looking at B2B, same-day replenishment of stores, and shrinking stores and refrigeration.”
“We’ve worked with companies such as Brain Corp. on many-to-one or many-to-many robot networks,” Hornyak added. “3PLs won’t be our customers but will be partners. We can extend their networks to additional nodes to meet same-day demand with a localization play rather than automating their existing DCs, which others can do.”
“With compressed demand during the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re working in a business area of extreme chaos,” he said. “You can either sit on the sidelines or strap on a helmet. I’m a fan of riding the tornado of chaotically controlled growth.”