A shelf-stacking, hazard-identifying 6m-tall robot named Kai has been rolled out to Countdown's second e-commerce-only supermarket.
Sally Copland, Countdown's general manager of digital, describes the robot as technology that will enable the supermarket chain to streamline its operations.
Designed to operate in stores accessible to the public, the robot, which has sensors and wheels, is programmed to travel up and down the grocery aisle sending alerts to staff if it comes across hazards on the ground or gaps in the shelves. It is currently being tested in the newly opened Rototuna store, which is operating to fulfil only online orders following demand for online shopping brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, but will be open to the public later in the year.
Longer-term, the robot will also be able to scan the shelves to ensure the correct price tags are displayed for each item. It can perform store runs unassisted and simultaneously before taking itself back to its docking station to be recharged.
Kai is a New Zealand first as far as grocery robots go. The retailer, as part of the ASX-listed Woolworths Group, had been trialling the same technology in some of its stores in Australia, Copland said.
Countdown is trialling the technology here with the intention of rolling out similar robots to other stores in its network of 183 stores if it is proven to be successful.
"We brought this technology over to New Zealand, put it into that store, to test and learn, and work out whether or not it is an applicable technology that would benefit other stores."
Copland believes advanced technology and robotics will be commonplace within the grocery business over the next 10 years.
"Automation in retailing will play an increasing role in how we are making sure we are able to meet changing demands of our customers."
Countdown has been operating an e-commerce business and utilising technology to improve its operations for more than 20 years.
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This year it will implement a "micro fulfilment centre picking solution" in its Penrose-based dark store servicing only online orders. Basically a giant vending machine that holds all of the product and delivers it to the staff member on a conveyor belt. It has been working with Boston-based Takeoff Technologies, an e-commerce grocery start-up, that builds compact and automated micro fulfilment centres.
Dark stores are highly automated supermarkets - not accessible by customers - dedicated to service online grocery shopping, and are commonplace in Britain and the United States where the uptake in online shopping is far greater than in New Zealand.
Woolworths already operates two dark stores in Sydney and one in Melbourne to serve online orders.
The company's 8800sq m facility in Auckland that opened two weeks ago has the ability to process 7500 orders each week.
"Automation will absolutely play an increasing role in retail going forward."
Copland said the group was trialling a range of technologies as demand in online shopping and convenience continued to grow. Technology would enable the retailer to meet changing consumer demands, she said.
"We've been an online shopping retailer for more than 20 years and in that time we've already seen an enormous demand for our service. Before Covid-19 and before lockdown when people couldn't leave home and our delivery service became really important, we were already growing at 38 per cent year on year.
"It's a convenient solution and that's where technology can make that nice and simple. It's about responding to what our customers are going to be demanding of us."
The financial cost of the Kai robot and the vending-machine-like fulfilment unit is currently unknown but Copland said the New Zealand arm of Woolworths would be increasing its investment into smart technologies.
Online sales account for 6.5 per cent of Woolworths total sales in New Zealand.