More Robots To Hit The Aisles At Schnucks Grocery Stores In St. Louis Area

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

By Jacob Barker  Oct 30, 2018

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Tally, the shelf-auditing robot, moves up and down the aisles documenting inventory on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018, on the shelves of the Schnucks grocery store in Des Peres. At right, Schnucks clerk Bill Degenhart, a 31-year employee, re-stocks the shelves after Tally reports its findings to inventory management. Schnuck Markets plans to expand the robots to at least 15 of their area stores. Photo by 

Updated 10/30 with comments from the union representing Schnucks workers.

In at least 15 Schnuck Markets stores, the future is now.

Aisle-scanning retail inventory robots, known as Tally, will soon be wheeling around in a growing number of locations as the St. Louis area’s leading grocer expands its partnership with San Francisco firm Simbe Robotics.

The robot, which moves around on a Roomba-looking base, uses cameras and sensors to perform inventory checks and alert employees when an item needs restocking or if price tags don’t match advertisements.

The grocery chain piloted the Tally robot in July 2017 in three stores. Then, several months ago, Schnucks officials began operating the Tally robots in four stores — Ballwin, Des Peres, Webster Groves and Woods Mill in Chesterfield.

Tally will keep its job at those four stores.

“We saw that our out-of-stock positions improved greatly,” said Bob Hardester, Schnucks’ chief information officer.

Schnucks plans to roll Tally out at four more stores in the next month: Granite City, Twin Oaks, Cross Keys in Florissant and Sierra Vista in Spanish Lake.

Those stores are near some of the 16 Shop ’n Save stores that are expected to close this month as the former competitor discontinues operations, and Tally is supposed to help manage any new influx of customers to Schnucks. Seven other stores will be chosen for a Tally robot installation over the coming months based on any increased sales volume.

The robot has already improved since the pilot last year, and the latest version can scan the aisles (excluding produce, meat and deli, which have dedicated staffs to track inventory) of Schnucks’ 74,000-square-foot Des Peres store in three hours. That’s down from the four hours it was taking at the Richmond Heights location, Schnucks’ busiest location and the initial test store for last year’s pilot.

Tally is part of Schnucks’ efforts to collect and harness more and better data on shopping habits and inventory. Hardester credited the company’s move three years ago to install fiber in its stores that allows the use of heavy data-collection technology such as Tally.

It follows the grocer’s move last month to roll out a reward app which is as much about tracking customer shopping habits as promoting brand loyalty with points and coupons.

Tally will create a detailed digital map of Schnucks stores that can be used as shopping moves into augmented reality, where shoppers could use smartphone apps or headsets to help them better locate exactly where items are and more details about those items.

“For the customer who wants that type of experience, we’ll be able to give it to them,” Hardester said.

Schnucks has been an early partner of Simbe, founded in 2014. No other retailers have publicly announced their use of Simbe’s Tally robot, though Target Corp. was said to have operated a pilot in San Francisco locations two years ago. Tally also provides data to consumer goods and food manufacturer companies about shelf location and consumer preferences. Walmart began rolling out similar robots through a different company last year.

Hardester said Schnucks uses the service on a monthly subscription basis for a “reasonable” fee.

If it continues seeing improvements in stores with Tally, keep a look out for more Tallys in Schnucks’ nearly 120 locations.

“It’s very plausible you could eventually see a Tally in each store,” Hardester said.

Hardester emphasized the move is not about eliminating jobs. Though the union that represents most Schnucks employees, the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 655, hasn’t exactly endorsed Tally, Hardester said they are “aware” of the project. Each store still has a staff member in charge of checking inventory and ordering more, he noted.

“They’re not being replaced,” he said of employees. “It’s just making their life more efficient.”

Local 655 President David Cook said the union plans to discuss Tally with Schnucks officials in coming weeks. The union has dealt with technological advances before — self-checkers, for instance — though Cook said he’s happy Schnucks is “on the cutting edge and trying to stay competitive.”

“If we walk down the road of this new technology, which is great, we just need to make sure we protect those individuals that gave the company the ability to make those advances,” Cook said. “Whenever there’s change, there’s questions.”

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