Click and Collect: Stores Become Retail Distribution Centers

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Brick-and-mortar stores are becoming today’s retail distribution centers, but as technology evolves, the future of this concept could be automated.

Child trantrum

Picture via Lifehacker.

Just another typical Saturday morning at the Conner household.  Its Groundhog Day if you will as this scenario plays out more times than I’d like to remember.  The kids come down the stairs and within 45 seconds the dreaded “what’s for breakfast?” question is shouted in unison.

A quick check of the refrigerator confirms what I already know, we are down to bare rations that would rival the residents of Vicksburg, Mississippi during the Civil War.  No milk, no eggs; pancake mix, who needs that?

So you can imagine what comes next.  Yep, it’s big, bad dad heading to the store.  “Oh, and since you’re going to the store dear,” says my wife.  “Can you pick up these 67 items on our list, too?  And it’d be great if you took the kids with you.”  And just like that we’re off.  I feel like a hog on his ride to the slaughter house as I know what’s coming next.

As we enter what I like to refer to as the house of mirrors or Satan’s palace – that being the grocery store on a Saturday morning with three kids under the age of seven; I can’t help but think there must be a better way to do this?

As we pull in the parking lot, it’s clear we aren’t the only ones in suburbia America with the same goals this Saturday morning.  A sea of minivans rivaling the local Honda dealership has us parking in the back forty.  Ten minutes later we finally make it into the store only to find the first three carts I try to commandeer are wedged together tighter than the lid on a pickle jar.  Finally we get a cart and this three ring circus is off.  Boy, it sure would be easier if this cart came pre-loaded with our groceries in it!  We have a list; couldn’t the grocery store fulfill this order for me?

As we head down the bread aisle, but before my three year old knocks over the entire display of Pepsi 2-liters; it hits me – This place should operate more like a distribution center.  Let’s call it a retail distribution center.

Visualizing Stores as Retail Distribution Centers of the Future

Order Entry

Let’s automate this thing.  My wife and I scribble down items all week long that we need or want to pick up the next time one of us heads to the store.  Instead, why can’t each of us add these items to an app on our smart phones?  We could then submit the order to the grocery store and select a time that is convenient for us to pick up our order.  For example, I know with certainty I’m heading that way every Saturday morning.

Order Picking

Order picking to cart

Let’s structure this so the grocery store can apply underutilized labor to fulfill online orders.  For example, our store for some reason is open 24 hours a day.  Great feature when you remember you need to pick up Pop Tarts at 2:30 in the morning.  The store also utilizes this time to restock shelves, clean floors, etc.  But the few times I’ve stopped in overnight, I can’t help but notice a lot of workers who appear not to have a whole lot to do.  These workers could be picking online orders.

I know how long it takes me to complete adding all the items on our list into our cart.  It’s a minimum of 45 minutes of excruciating pain and frustration.  Time wasted searching for some ingredient I’ve never heard of, only to be wedged in a five-cart pile up.  What a waste of time, and I can quickly see how inefficient this could be for the grocery store to pick these orders in the same manner.

But what if we grouped orders and took advantage of picking common items on multiple orders at the same time – batching?  This could work.  How about we use an autonomous guided vehicle (AGV)?  The AGVs could move carts through the store alongside the picker, allowing for greater efficiencies.  And when all the picks on one order were completed, the AGV could take the cart away, allowing the picker to continue picking other orders.

As my five-year-old son now informs me he needs to use the restroom and that it’s an “emergency”, I start to think that maybe I might be onto something with this Retail Distribution Center concept.

But how do the operators actually get directed to the locations?  Anyone who has been in the warehouse automation industry for more than five minutes will tell you that paper-based picking is a terrible idea.  It’s incredibly slow and often leads to picking errors.

So, what can we do?  How about Pick-To-Light (PTL)?  PTL would sure help reduce picking errors and decrease the time required to pick each order, but can you imagine the cost to outfit an entire grocery store with PTL?  We could utilize RF scanning in which the pickers would scan a barcode on the order list and then confirm they picked the right item by scanning a barcode on the item.  This would certainly improve accuracy, but man it would be slow.

Wait, I’ve got an idea.  Let’s utilize Augmented Reality.  What is that you ask?  It’s a wireless set of glasses with an earpiece and speaker.  The glasses direct the picker to the location of the item to be picked and then display a picture, item description, and quantity of the item that is ordered.  (On a side note: Bastian Solutions is displaying this technology in our booth at ProMat in Chicago this year.)

Augmented reality picking

Other useful information such as bagging instructions could also be displayed.  For example, it could be displayed for the picker to bag this item with the other frozen food items.  The unit would have a microphone and earpiece so the operator can confirm the pick, or communicate back to the system with information such as “the item is out of stock”.  That information could be taken and sent via text message in real time to the customer asking if they would be okay with a substitute.  “We’re sorry, but we are out of stock of Heinz ketchup. Can we fulfill your order with RedGold brand?”

Order Pickup

Once the order is completed, it would be taken to a storage area.  Depending upon the scheduled pickup time, frozen and cooler times may need to be stored in separate area.  An ASRS would be useful to prevent orders from getting mixed up or lost.

Once my order is ready for pickup, I would be sent a text telling me it is available.  I could come then or wait until my scheduled pickup time.  Instead of parking out in the back forty, I could simply pull around to the back door where an associate would help load the groceries in my car.  How cool!

“Click and Collect” Methods

Kroger ClickList

As I make my way to the checkout line that mimics the TSA line at the airport the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, I can’t help but think that Retail Distribution Centers make a lot of sense.  Actually some groceries are starting to implement this very concept.  Grocery chains such as Kroger, Publix, and Meijer have rolled out pilot programs.  Customers can place their orders, schedule a pick up time, and store associates will manually fill their orders and deliver them for curbside pickup.

Other brick-and-mortar stores, such as Macy’s, are turning their retail locations into mini distribution centers. By offering the option to reserve products or buy online and pickup in store, retail locations are battling e-commerce giants like Amazon. Customers now have options that allow them faster, more convenient methods for making purchases. The “click and collect” method eliminates shipping charges but still offers convenience over traditional in-store shopping experiences.

The Future of Retail Distribution

Today’s retail stores are evolving, but what does the future hold? Could AGVs or augmented reality speed order picking and take fulfillment to the next level? In the future, will we ever have to go into a store again? For my sake, I sure hope not!  Certainly not on Saturday mornings!

Greg Conner
I joined Bastian Solutions in 2005 after graduating from Purdue University. My first role was as a project engineer before transitioning to a field application engineer. After seven years, I became regional director of Indiana, overseeing all local FAEs as well as Bastian Solutions’ e-commerce business. In 2016, I was promoted to Vice President, Eastern U.S. where I now oversee sales and operations for all Eastern U.S. offices.

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