Robots Invade St. Louis Grocery Chain with Silicon Valley Technology

    In more than a dozen St. Louis area Schnucks grocery stores, you’ll see expressions ranging from confused to amused these days.  The “what is that?” look being worn on all those faces is the result of a roughly five-foot tall machine rolling from aisle to aisle.

    “What we have is a robot called Tally that drives through the stores and helps the stores with their inventory,” Lauren Milliken from Simbe Robotics explains on a recent afternoon in Schnucks’ Des Peres store.

    So robots have come to the local market, but you don’t’ have to worry about a scene from “The Terminator” playing out in aisle 6.

    “You don’t see Tally and think it’s some scary machine down the aisle,” Milliken says.  “It’s just this cute little robot.  That’s one of the things I like.”

    What grocers like is the potential for more efficiency.  Tally makes a three-hour trip around a Schnucks store three times daily, checking every single shelf.  When the robot finds an empty spot, it checks its inventory list and messages the store staff that there is an item in need of re-stocking.

    “It’s essentially looking to find where there are holes in the shelf so that’s the most important part,” Milliken explains. “When something is completely out on the shelf that’s a missed opportunity for the customer.”

    Simbe Robotics is based in San Francisco, and is one of the first companies in the United States to produce such a robot.  Dave Steck, who runs technology projects like this for Schnucks, says the company’s engagement with Simbe was a sort of happy accident.

    “We didn’t have an overwhelming desire to go into the robot business.  We ran into Tally at a conference and thought it was an interesting technology.”

    So Schnucks decided to try Tally out, and has since become Simbe Robotics’ biggest customer.

    “Schnucks is one of the first to be using these robots like this and they have definitely embraced Tally in a way other stores haven’t,” Milliken observes.

    It leaves Schnucks getting comfortable with a label you might not expect a family owned, regional grocery chain in the Midwest to take on:  robotics pioneer.

    “We’re out in front of all the big chains,” Steck says, “and that’s a good place to be.”

    But there is still a long way to go.  Some employees complain Tally is the source of many an afternoon traffic jam in the stores, blocking the way of workers trying to stock shelves.

    But that’s a problem the company appears willing to accept, talking instead about the growth of the robot program.  Right now, Tallys are in 15 stores, and Schnucks is working to determine how much efficiency is being gained from having the robots.  They don’t have numbers yet, but are convinced the program is delivering on its promise.

    “I’m confident we’ll see an improvement in in stock position in those stores,” Steck says.  “We’re asking Simble to make some modifications to help us improve the robot a little bit, help improve its capabilities, and once that’s delivered I don’t see anything that’s stopping us from deploying in all our stores.”

    Then there is the question of people.  Is Tally a step toward taking a human’s job?  All involved insist that’s not the case here.

    “Tally doesn’t have arms,” Steck says. “It can’t stock items on the shelf. It’s a tool for the stores to use and help them focus on customer service.”

    Milliken also keys on that point.

    “This really frees up the store team to fix problems when they happen and will also give them more time to interact with the shoppers in the store.”

    For Milliken, whose full-time job is to go to client stores and follow the robots around, looking for ways to improve them, this project brings a lot of joy.  She likes seeing the fruits of her robotics degree go toward a wider use and acceptance of the machines.

    “Anyone can come into a grocery store and see this cool robot driving around, which is really exciting for me,” she says.