Watch: How E-Commerce Is Forcing Automation in Grocery Warehousing

The trend in small-sized orders is likely to continue, and that will pose challenges for warehouse operators and e-grocers, says Colman Roche, vice president of e-commerce and retail with Swisslog.

The trend has been for smaller order sizes for some time, but the COVID-19 pandemic amplified that, says Roche. Consumers ordered more online, they ordered more frequently, and the characteristics of those orders changed. The number of lines per order often went up. Roche, however, sees that long-term trends will re-emerge. “Now, as people are spending more time away from home, we’ll see people tending to order one or two items. I think the long-term trends will resume.”

Nevertheless, e-commerce will continue to grow and labor availability will remain an issue, so warehouses will meet those challenges by automating more. “E-commerce order trends are all about each picking; they’re the most expensive,” Roche says. “So they’re ripe for automation.”

As for online grocery shopping, it started before the pandemic. Grocers had a lot of time to think about the trend’s impact and what they needed to do operationally. “COVID, of course, changed all that,” says Roche. “There was a collision between the time it takes to deploy automation and the need for grocers to really move quickly. So a lot of grocers put in manual micro-fulfillment centers or manual dark stores that don’t have consumers.” Home delivery begins from those facilities.

Industry predictions are that the present levels of online grocery shopping will increase, though the percentages vary. Roche says as much as 70% of consumers have tried online grocery shopping over the last two years, which the industry feels will allow for a huge increase in adoption.
 The biggest hurdle to e-grocery adoption is consumer concern over the condition of produce. Roche says the latest technologies ensure that picking doesn’t bruise items.