Robots are now scanning shelves at Save Mart and Lucky Supermarkets in California

April 16, 2021, 12:30 PM UTC

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Customers who shop at a few Northern California grocery stores could see a five-foot autonomous robot cruising down the aisles, scanning goods like cereal and shampoo.

Supermarket giant Save Mart Companies has begun testing inventory-scanning robots developed by Simbe, a robotics startup, at seven grocery stores in Golden State cities such as Modesto and Dublin. Those supermarkets include three of Save Mart’s namesake stores, two of its Lucky California stores, and two of its FoodMaxx groceries. 

After three months of testing the robot, called Tally, Save Mart will decide whether it makes sense to continue using the technology, said Brad Bogolea, Simbe’s chief executive. 

Bogolea explained that grocers are exploring robots as a way to cut costs by replacing humans with machines for certain tasks. He said they could help track store inventory in order to prevent items like toilet paper from going “out of stock” when a person shops. Still, Bogolea maintained that “Tally will not replace humans at any of our partner retailers.” 

The startup’s robot moves autonomously throughout a grocery store about two to three times a day in order to scan grocery shelves, Bogolea said. The bot’s job is to ensure that items are properly stocked and goods like potato chips are correctly priced.

The Tally robot at a Save Mart in Modesto, CA.
A Tally bot roams a beverage aisle at a Save Mart in the Northern California city of Modesto.

The grocer is running the pilot program “to ensure the best in-store experiences” for customers, said Hal Levitt, Save Mart’s retail operations lead, in a statement. The technology could, he said, allow “us to provide better product availability.”

The Tally robot has limits though. The gadget does not currently scan grocery products such as fresh produce or baked goods, which pose a more “difficult computer vision problem” than analyzing packaged goods, Bogolea said. He added that Simbe wants to improve its A.I. technology so that its robot can eventually track more grocery items.

Because of rising minimum wages, particularly in California, grocers believe that automation technology will help improve their profit margins. Minimum wages in the state are expected to increase to $15 an hour by 2023.

“In California, the minimum wage is going to turn many of these grocers over their heads,” Bogolea said. Some union workers have protested grocers in California, like Safeway, increasingly using A.I. in their facilities to automate certain worker tasks. Bogolea said his startup hasn’t faced any pushback from unions.

Last fall, Walmart ended a partnership with a Simbe competitor, Bossa Nova Robotics. The break-off raised questions about whether inventory-scanning robots were worth the investment by retail operators. “Walmart’s decision isn’t reflective on the broader market,” Bogolea said.

In 2016, Target tested Simbe’s Tally robots at a San Francisco store. But the retailer “is not a customer at this time,” a Simbe spokesperson said.

Simbe is heavily courting more regional grocery store operators and midsize retailers instead of bigger companies, Bogolea said. There’s a chance that large players like Walmart may eventually develop their own robots, posing a risk to robotics startups like his. 

“Trying to sell to Amazon and Walmart is sexy, but it’s the fastest way to kill yourself as a company,” Bogolea said. 

Some of Simbe’s other customers include France’s Decathlon Sporting Goods and Groupe Casino, and St. Louis–based Schnuck Markets.

Story updated on April 20 to add Bogolea’s comments on the possibility of robots replacing human workers.

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