The labor shortage is plaguing the retail industry on two fronts: the distribution center and the store, says Pete Blair, vice president of marketing with Berkshire Grey.
The number-one labor challenge for supply chains today is worker availability at the retail level, says Blair. “Younger generations don’t want these jobs. And many don’t want to work in distribution centers.”
The pandemic has also had an impact on the willingness of workers to take supply chain jobs. With factories and other facilities shutting down due to COVID-19, nobody knows what’s safe. What’s more, says Blair, “we hear from everyone that it’s not going to get better.”
Retail staffers are in constant contact with shoppers. Their role has been further complicated by the expansion of services such as curbside pickup; buy online, pick up in store (BOPIS); and home delivery. As more retail activity shifts to e-commerce, grocery stores in particular are faced with new responsibilities in order fulfillment. “Now, the retailer has to pay an employee to do what I [the in-store customer] used to do for free,” says Blair. “There are more labor-intensive things that need to be done.”
The key to alleviating the pressure on the human workforce is automation, both in stores and distribution centers. In many cases, with the advent of micro-fulfillment operations, those facilities are being combined within a single location. “We’re starting to see customers ask how they can move distribution technology into store backrooms,” Blair says. The trend means that store associates must handle more products in smaller lots. And that’s where robotics comes into the picture.
These aren’t the kind of robots that have served production and distribution facilities for years, with relatively simple programming that enables them to perform rote tasks. In DCs and stores today, robots are “very agile and fluid,” says Blair. “Vision and sensing technology have made huge advances.”
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