NRF 2024 shows how robots can innovate category management

NRF 2024 showed a range of retail robotics.
NRF 2024 showed a range of retail robotics. Credit: Georges Mirza

Automated systems for retail were spread all over the National Retail Federation’s “big show,” a three-day battle of the bots event. From the main floor to the Innovation Zone, and from the front of house to the back of the store, there were robots for numerous tasks at NRF.

Systems were strategically located throughout the 300,000 sq. ft. of expo space, vying for the attention of the 42,000 attendees in New York’s Javits Convention Center.

Robots were also prominent in the event‘s food service innovation center. There were so many innovations to see, but so little time to give them justice. The focus here is on the front of the store.

Shelf-insights robot leaders preside over thinning field

The shelf-insights robotics field is dwindling. The top two leaders were present on the NRF main floor.

Badger Technologies LLC, which claims to provide the most shelf-based insights for a multi-purpose robot rollout, had a prominent exhibit. It teamed up with Stop & Shop by introducing a “Selfies with Marty” promotion to fight school hunger.

Inventory robots offer to provide real-time data.
Inventory robots such as Brain Corp’s offer to provide real-time data. Credit: Georges Mirza

Stop & Shop has used the Marty mobile robot to promote and raise awareness about several worthy causes. Badger said Marty’s extracurricular activities do not slow the flow of shelf-insights data, price checks, and detecting spillage in aisles.

Building on the early successful spill-detection rollout at Stop & Shop, Badger Technologies said it completed converting those robots to the multi-purpose Marty that includes shelf insights to nearly 400 locations.

Home improvement chains are also using Badger’s robots, including Stine LLC, McCoy’s Building Supply, and Busy Beaver Building Centers. The backing of parent company Jabil is advantageous for Badger. The Nicholasville, Ky.-based company has access to technologies and services that allow it to focus on solving problems directly for stores without distractions.

Simbe Robotics Inc. showed off its Tally robot in the Hewlett Packard booth. With nonstop inquiries at the booth, Simbe touted many of its successes over the past year. The San Francisco-based supplier claimed that it has the most presence in retail banners worldwide, including SpartanNash, BJ’s Wholesale Club, and Schnucks, to name a few.

Simbe had a chainwide rollout at Schnucks and has expanded at ShopRite, and it has reportedly grown 3X growth over the past year on its path to profitability. The company said it addresses inventory problems, providing visibility to store conditions and facilitating optimized fulfillment of e-commerce orders.

Brain Corp is muscling its way into shelf insights. Located next door to the Javits at the Manhattan Classic Car Club, Brain showcased its new shelf-insight robot, the Dane AIR, which is also capable of RFID inventory capture. The new robot was built in collaboration with Dane Technologies.

San Diego-based Brain Corp said it has the largest fleet of robots operating in retail environments. This includes the floor scrubbing robot rollout at Walmart stores, nationwide deployment of combined shelf-scanning and floor-cleaning robots at Sam’s Club, and deployments with several other U.S. and European retailers.

NRF provides a peek at retail’s automated future

Vici Robotics' shelf-restocking system at NRF.
Vici Robotics’ shelf-restocking system at NRF. Credit: Georges Mirza

In NRF’s Innovation Zone, Vici Robotics Co. showcased its restocking robot. The system is intended to restock shelves aisles after hours, according to the San Jose, Calif.-based startup, which is one of the first to prepare and build for retail robots’ second act.

With the field narrowing and more frequent chainwide rollouts, we should see how near-real-time shelf insights can help retailers. Demand for these insights will affect demand for such systems and ultimately facilitate smarter category management.

ForwardX Robotics, which is entrenched in several large retailers, showed off its automated picking capabilities for retail at NRF. It was interesting to see the Beijing-based company’s front-of-store robotics for the U.S. market.

In addition, NRF showcased an abundance of fragmented innovations. It’s time to start to consolidate and make them actionable. I like the moves made recently by SES-imagotag, now called VusionGroup.

It will be interesting to see if the various technologies can come together to digitize the store, and how they scale and execute will be of great interest.

Data paves the way to smart category management destination

With the recent chainwide expansions of robots in regional retailers, their data will become more accessible. We will have more visibility into the potential benefits, and the use cases could also start to expand.

Near-real-time shelf data is a critical component to facilitate smart category management. This would make half of the current processes redundant, and the other half will be smarter and open the door to many new solutions.

As large retailers progress with their expansions, it will be notable to see if they welcome more robots or choose alternative approach, such as relying on stationary or non-automated scanners. Robots will continue to evolve to provide more value to retail stores.


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Georges MirzaAbout the author

Georges Mirza has looked ahead at trends in developing transformative systems for the retail and consumer packaged goods (CPG) markets. He established a roadmap for robotic indoor data collection, image recognition, and analytics for retail to address out-of-stocks, inventory levels, and compliance.

Having previously managed portfolios of space and category management solutions at Nielsen, Blue Yonder, and SymphonyAI Retail CPG, Mirza advises companies on strategizing and prioritizing their roadmaps for growth. Follow him on LinkedIn or Twitter.

ForwardX exhibited at NRF 2024.
ForwardX exhibited at NRF 2024. Credit: Georges Mirza

Written by

Georges Mirza

Georges Mirza has looked ahead at trends in developing transformative systems for the retail and consumer packaged goods (CPG) markets. He established a roadmap for robotic indoor data collection, image recognition, and analytics for retail to address out-of-stocks, inventory levels, and compliance.

Having previously managed portfolios of space and category management solutions at Nielsen, Blue Yonder, and SymphonyAI Retail CPG, Mirza advises companies on strategizing and prioritizing their roadmaps for growth.