Customers no longer have to wait in line to purchase a cupcake from a Sprinkles bakery. Instead, they enter an order into a tablet, swipe a credit card, and wait for an employee to retrieve it.
The cupcake chain’s kiosk system, which it began testing at the start of the pandemic, initially allowed for social distancing. It now assists the Austin, Texas-based company in keeping up with increased online orders in a competitive labor market where new employees are difficult to find and retain. Sprinkles’ 20 locations will have the kiosks by early January, according to Justin Murakami, senior vice president of operations.
To keep up with the times, retailers and restaurants are increasing their investments in robots and other technology. Walgreens is automating prescription filling, while Sprinkles and Starbucks are replacing cashiers with tablets. In other news, Walmart-owned Sam’s Club is using robots to clean store floors and scan inventory in some locations, and restaurant chains such as Buffalo Wild Wings and White Castle are testing robots that can flip burgers and make chicken wings.
Molly Harnischfeger, a director on AlixPartners’ consumer-insights team, said companies are feeling more pressure as they struggle to find workers and pay higher wages. Furthermore, she claims that shoppers and diners are becoming more open to robots and other technology as a result of their dissatisfaction with long wait times and other consequences of staffing shortages.
She claims that many restaurants quietly increased their tech budgets and began robotics and artificial intelligence pilots in the second half of the year, a trend she expects to continue in 2022. High turnover and low wages have long been associated with the retail and restaurant industries. However, with fewer workers now and in the future, industries are raising wages, sweetening perks, and even offering sign-on bonuses to attract new hires.
According to Ron Hetrick, senior economist at labor market research firm Emsi Burning Glass, the labor shortage will outlast the pandemic. Many baby boomers retired early, and some people avoided industries with high levels of interpersonal interaction or chose a job that allowed remote work due to child-care issues.
Digital orders have also necessitated the completion of new tasks such as moving items off shelves for curbside pickup, preparing takeout orders, and so on — implying that they require more employees, not fewer.
Robots clean the floors of Sam’s Club locations. These robotic scrubbers are powered by Brain Corp. software, which has clients including airports, hospitals, and shopping malls. Sam’s Club is testing an attachment with a camera that scans inventory and can flag if employees need to restock or rearrange a shelf in some locations.
Throughout the pandemic, the membership-based club encouraged customers to use a Scan & Go app on their smartphones to skip lines and check out purchases as they shopped the aisles.
The Walmart-owned chain operates nearly 600 stores and employs approximately 100,000 people. According to a spokeswoman for the retailer, it has not had difficulty finding employees, but it recently increased its hourly minimum wage to $15 in recognition of a more competitive market.
Some prescription bottles at Walgreens are filled at centralized, automated hubs rather than by hand by a store employee. In January, the company acquired a majority stake in iA, a pharmaceutical fulfillment technology company.
The drugstore chain has already established facilities in Phoenix and Dallas to assist with prescription filling for 550 pharmacies. It intends to run 11 of the centers in the United States by the end of 2022.
Both Sam’s Club and Walgreens claim that the automation frees up time for employees to help customers rather than spend hours on mundane tasks like mopping floors, manning cash registers, or counting pills.
According to Josh Baylin, vice president of product and marketing at Brain Corp., businesses must become smarter about how they use their workforce. This entails looking for monotonous, low-value tasks to automate — a strategy that saves money while also making jobs more enjoyable.
The use of robots powered by Brain Corp.’s software has increased dramatically. The company said the amount of square feet covered by these autonomous robots rose 40% in the retail sector, 69% at airports and 113% at malls year-over-year as of Oct. 1.