The robot work force isn’t coming. It’s already here

Sprinkles has added kiosks at its bakeries across the country, which allow customers to place their own orders and help manage the increase in the company’s online orders.

Ashley Haguewood

When customers buy a cupcake from a Sprinkles bakery, they no longer stand in line at the checkout. Instead, they type into a tablet, swipe a credit card, and wait for an employee to pick up an order.

The kiosk system – which the cupcake chain began testing at the start of the pandemic – initially enabled social distancing. Now he’s helping the Austin, Texas-based company keep pace with increasing online orders in a tight job market where new employees are hard to find and retain. Its 20 locations will have kiosks by early January, Justin said Murakami, senior vice president of operations at Sprinkles.

To cope with these changing times, retailers and restaurants are stepping up their investments in robots and other technologies. Walgreens are turning to automation to fill prescriptions, while Sprinkles and Starbucks are replacing cashiers with tablets. Elsewhere, Walmart-owned Sam’s Club uses robots to mop store floors and analyze inventory in certain locations, and restaurant chains like Buffalo Wild Wings and White Castle are testing robots that can turn burgers or make burgers. chicken wings.

Molly Harnischfeger, director of the consumer analytics team at AlixPartners, said companies are feeling more urgency as they struggle to find workers and pay higher wages. In addition, she said, buyers and diners, anxious of long wait times and other consequences of staff shortages, are increasingly open to robots and other technologies.

“When customers go to a restaurant, [and] are … [not] able to get the level of service they expect and the convenience they expect, the narrative shifts a bit in their acceptance of that. “

They are looking to “get their products faster, whether it’s a robot delivering their order curbside to a retailer, whether it’s self-service checkouts, whether it’s their plates coming from. cooking on a robotic server, ”she said. “Everyone is feeling this crisis as a consumer right now.”

She said many restaurants have quietly increased their tech budgets and launched robotics and artificial intelligence pilot projects in the second half of the year – a trend she plans to continue in 2022.

“You are really on the cusp of this technological enlightenment for the restaurant industry,” she said.

Persistent labor crisis

The retail and restaurant industries have long been associated with high turnover and low wages. But with fewer workers now and on the horizon, industries are raising wages, softening benefits, and even offering sign-up bonuses to recruit new hires.

Ron Hetrick, senior economist for labor market analysis firm Emsi Burning Glass, said the labor shortage will survive the pandemic. Many baby boomers retired prematurely, and some people withdrew from industries with higher levels of people-to-people interactions or chose jobs that allowed remote working due to childcare issues.

Digital orders have also resulted in the need to perform new tasks like removing items from shelves for curbside pickup, or preparing take out orders etc. need more employees, not less.

Scrub floors, fill prescriptions

Cleaning robots clean the floors of some grocery stores and the Sam’s Club membership club. The software, made by Brain Corp., can also scan shelves for inventory.

Brain Corp.

Inside Sam’s Club stores, robots clean the floors. These robotic scrubbers are powered by software designed by Brain Corp., which counts airports, hospitals and shopping malls among its customers. In some places, Sam’s Club tests an attachment with a camera that scans inventory and can signal if employees need to restock or rearrange a shelf.

Throughout the pandemic, the membership-based club encouraged customers to use a Scan & Go app to skip the lines and check purchases on their smartphones while they shop the aisles.

The Walmart-owned chain has nearly 600 stores and about 100,000 employees. Via a spokesperson, the retailer said it hadn’t had a hard time finding employees, but recently raised its minimum hourly wage to $ 15 – a recognition from a more competitive market.

At Walgreens, some prescription vials are filled at centralized, automated hubs, rather than being filled by hand by an employee in a store. The company acquired a controlling stake in iA, a pharmaceutical order fulfillment technology company, in January.

The drugstore chain has already opened a facility in Phoenix and Dallas that helps fill prescriptions for 550 drugstores. It plans to operate 11 of the centers in the United States by the end of 2022.

Sam’s Club and Walgreens say automation saves employees time helping customers instead of spending hours on mundane chores like cleaning floors, handling cashiers or counting pills.

Josh Braylin, vice president of products and marketing for Brain Corp., said companies need to get smarter about how they use their workforce. This means looking for monotonous, low-value tasks to automate – an approach that both saves money and makes work more enjoyable.

“A robot can do this repetitive, boring job while that same worker goes to chat with customers to provide more customer service or potentially clean up other areas of the store that may need more attention,” he said. .

The use of robots powered by software from Brain Corp. jumped up. The company said the amount of square feet covered by these autonomous robots increased by 40% in the retail industry, 69% at airports and 113% in malls year on year. other on October 1.

Rina Shah, group vice president of pharmacy operations and services at Walgreens, said the chain opened its prescription fulfillment centers at a prime time.

With the pandemic, pharmacists and pharmacy technicians have stepped up the patient care aspect of their duties. They perform Covid-19 tests and vaccines, fill prescriptions, and answer questions about drugs. Even beyond the health crisis, Walgreens sought to turn stores into healthcare destinations with doctors’ offices and other medical services.

“We have a lot more work to do and opportunities ahead of us than we have ever had before due to the pandemic,” Shah said.

At Sprinkles, the cupcake chain, self-checkout kiosks are now part of the talk for job applicants, who may be nervous about calling customer orders in person while tossing cupcakes. in boxes for online orders, said Murakami. He described the tablets as “stress relief” for the employees.

“We let them know that it is not only for the guests. It is also for the team,” he said. “It actually helps create an efficient and organized environment so that you can walk in without the pressure to make it much like an assembly line.”

-CNBC Nate rattner contributed to this story.


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