Convenience retailer Co-op has made more than 15,000 deliveries to customers using autonomous robots from Starship Technologies since a trial began in April 2018. (The robots themselves have been tested in 100 cities different across the world by a number of retailers, including Domino’s Pizza, with the robots meeting 12 million people along the way.)
Up to 60 robots operate from the Monkston Park Co-op store in Milton Keynes and deliver groceries that area shoppers have ordered online. Most orders are refills rather than weekly big shops, says Jason Perry, Senior Manager Ecommerce Strategy & Rollout, Food Digital, Co-op, but “if the order is too big for one robot, we send another one behind. . ,” he says.
The delivery area stretches 2.7 km south of the store and 2.2 km north, which takes robots up to 60 minutes to travel the entire distance. Through the use of neural networks, robots discover the area in which they are deployed more and more quickly over time, as they learn, on their previous journeys, how to handle the various junctions that they have. they meet.
The operational side of grocery orders is handled by Starship, which at the start of each day delivers the robots and all the batteries they will need for the day to the store. The robots are loaded with their grocery order in front of the store, so nothing inside had to be changed. The order is picked by the cooperative staff from among the items on the shelves.
As Perry explains, Co-op has fairly small stores, not 25,000 square foot supermarkets, so picking and then ordering 7 or 8 items from a checkout and Starship robot is a two minute job and the additional cost of picking a customer’s order can be absorbed “into what the customer spends”. The delivery charge for the customer is £ 1 but there is no minimum order amount.
CONTROLLED BY AN APP
The process is also easy for customers, explains Perry. They must first download the Starship app and select their neighborhood. A total of nine locations, including a college campus in the United States, are included in the app, as the same system is used by a number of retailers testing autonomous robots.
Once the application has been downloaded, the customer can shop from a range of 700 products on the site. Perry explains that this is about a quarter of the product line and includes refrigerated items, but nothing that is not age-restricted, like alcohol, because there is no delivery driver. , no one is able to verify the age of the person receiving the order. There is demand for it, however, and alcohol is the number one thing people ask on the service’s Facebook page behind the expansion in their area.
Rather than having to enter a delivery address in the app, the buyer places a pin on a map indicating the location of where they want to be delivered. Deliveries are made within the exact hour and time until a delivery can be made to the buyer’s specific location is calculated at that point and displayed in the app. “Orders typically ship within 30 minutes including prep time,” says Perry.
The precision of the delivery location down to a few meters allowed interesting use cases, he explains. People ordered refrigerated picnic items before leaving home and had them delivered to the park when they arrived. A thermal insulation layer inside the robot keeps items at the right temperature and keeps them away from any product at room temperature.
The shopper can also track their robot in the app in what Perry describes as an Uber-like experience.
When the Starship robot arrives at the buyer’s pin location, it unlocks it through the app, opens the lid, and removes its order.
Anticipating a question he regularly asks about why none of the Starship robots were stolen, Perry explained to the eDelivery Expo audience that each robot has 8 cameras on the front and back. , is tracked by GPS within a few inches, has radar guidance, can be controlled remotely by Starship, will sound an alarm if picked up, and is activated with two-way communication. The bots are also mechanically locked so that content cannot be removed until it is unlocked by the customer through the app. “While it can make a great coffee table at home, there aren’t many other applications,” Perry says.
Adoption of the service has increased since its launch in April 2018. “We’ve seen a 4.5-fold increase in weekly orders since launch,” says Perry “and it’s growing steadily”. Of the nine thousand households in the store’s delivery area, around 80% have downloaded the app and 40% of them have placed an order.
Sunday is the busiest time for the service as “more people are home at this time” and “there is a demand for the service”. Saturdays see the next level of volume, followed by an even number of orders on Thursday, Friday and Wednesday. Monday and Tuesday see the fewest orders.
At the end of March, the trial was extended to another store in Milton Keynes, with the first order placed within 10 minutes of the trial being activated. About 2,000 households can access the service provided by the Emerson Valley store, but although this is a smaller area than the Monkston Park trial, it poses new challenges for the co-op, its colleagues. of the store and its customers since the store has never delivered orders online. before. The Monkston Park store is also used to fulfill orders from Deliveroo.
Co-op will work with Starship to expand the range of products offered online at this store and increase the size of the shoppers’ basket. It also plans to expand into other areas, including more difficult areas. “I’m not going to say it will go to every store in the co-op, because there are places it will work and places it won’t work,” Perry says.
As the link to Deliveroo in the Monkston Park store shows, Co-op is testing different ways to extend its convenience model with customers. It already offers a home delivery service for shoppers who can’t transport their own groceries after they’ve paid for them at 200 stores. It is also testing a Pay in Aisle mobile app that allows shoppers to “scan and go”.
Co-op’s online grocery service went live in London on March 22. Shoppers within a 4km radius of the store on King’s Road can order groceries from shop.coop.co.uk and have them delivered within two hours by e-bike. There is a standard delivery charge of £ 5 and a minimum spend of £ 15. Co-op has also introduced a free click-and-collect service in the store.
Ultimately, Co-op’s mission is to be the UK’s number one convenience retailer, which means giving customers the choice of how they want to shop.
The grocer will make online shopping available in “a significant number of UK cities”, but as Perry puts it, “there is not one thing that suits every store”. The retailer will therefore continue to test a mixture of solutions in different locations.