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Robot deliveries take top-up groceries straight to the park – or any other location

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Shoppers in parts of Milton Keynes are now ordering products from their local convenience store for delivery to places that range from the home to the park, using the autonomous robots that the Co-op is trialling in the area.

The Co-op has been piloting the use of robots from Starship Technologies in the area since August 2018, taking orders picked from its Monkston Park store to around 2,000 local households. The service has just expanded to a second store at Emerson’s Valley, serving a larger area of 9,000 homes.

“In the first 10 minutes of opening last Thursday,” said Jason Perry, senior manager ecommerce strategy and rollout at the Co-op, speaking this week at IRX 2019, “we’d already had orders, and robots were going out all morning.”

The service, controlled through a smartphone app, costs £1 to use and there’s no minimum spend – so shoppers use it to make orders of around the same size as they do in store, from a bar of chocolate to a mid-week top-up shop. Since the service was first launched at Monkston Park, orders placed via the robots have risen in volume by four and a half times.

“Because it’s on demand, we often sell chilled products,” said Perry, speaking at IRX 2019 this week. “We’ve seen families ordering as they’ve left the house and the robot’s turned up in the park with their order. They could just drive by the shop and get it, but this is how we’ve seen people using it.”

Shoppers can currently choose to order from a range of about 700 Co-op products for delivery with via robot. That’s around a quarter of the store’s range. As yet alcohol can’t be delivered since the retailer has not found a way to check the age of those ordering its items.

Shoppers tend to make top-up convenience shops for robot delivery. If a shopper orders a larger shop that’s beyond the capacity of one of the insulated robots, then staff use several robots and, says Perry, “they arrive in a convoy at the customer’s house.”

How the autonomous robot deliveries work in practice

Shoppers place their orders via the Starship Technologies smartphone app. They can see how long their delivery will take before they place the order – the typical delivery time is 30 minutes, but they can arrive in as little as 10 minutes – and then track the robot as it travels towards them. Once it arrives, they use the smartphone app to unlock the robot and remove their groceries. By the end of this month, says Perry, the service, which currently uses a fleet of around 60 robots, will have delivered 15,000 orders – to often grateful recipients. The retailer has collected thank you letters that children have sent back to the store in the returning robot. 

The battery range of the robots is about four miles, and the size of the delivery area covered from the Emerson’s Valley store is 2.7 miles at its longest point – which would take a robot around 50 minutes to travel.

The question that Perry says he’s asked most often by logistics professionals is whether there have been any thefts of the robots, or the groceries that they contain, yet. The answer is no: the machine is firmly locked until opened via the smartphone app, and the eight cameras and the GPS tracking that each uses in order to navigate the streets are a disincentive to theft, as is the alarm that goes off if a robot is picked up while en route. Added to that, says Perry, “they’re nowhere near as expensive as you’d think. The model is to make it cheap enough for retailers to use them – and there’s not really an application for them at home.” 

Wider moves by the Co-op into ecommerce deliveries

News of the robot trial comes as the retailer has also launched ecommerce deliveries, via electric cargo bikes, from its Kings Road, Chelsea store, and has been running a trial using Deliveroo for several months. Shoppers at selected branches of the Co-op can now get the groceries they bought in store delivered to their homes at a convenient time.

Perry said: “Our mission is to be the number one convenience retailer in the UK – that means we have to offer choice, whether via Starship, ecommerce in Chelsea or through our Deliveroo trial.” Not all of these mechanisms will work for every store, he says, and Milton Keynes is particularly well suited to using robots, but the point is to give “our customers the choice of how they shop with us.”

But while the Co-op is starting to use online retail strategically within its grocery stores, elsewhere it has closed its online electricals business. The Co-operative Electrical website, previously ranked Top500 in IRUK Top500 research, closed on March 23. 

Today the Co-op reported full-year revenue of £10.2bn, 14% up on last time following its acquisition of the Nisa wholesale business in the spring. Food like-for-like sales were up by 4.4% and pre-tax profits up by 27% at £93m. During the year the retailer invested £75m into opening more than 100 new food stores, refitted 138 stores and created 1,600 jobs. 

Images courtesy of the Co-op

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