In this second article of our “Year in Review” series, we sit down with Bossa Nova Robotics co-founder Sarjoun Skaff. Sarjoun is the Chief Technology Officer for the Pittsburgh based company. The Bossa Nova solution helps retailers maintain a real-time state of the store view.
A Year of Intense Growth
Looking back at 2019, the major milestone for Bossa Nova was the growth of their deployment at Walmart. They grew the number of autonomous mobile robots deployed at Walmart stores from 50 robots to 350 over the last 12 months with now an additional 650 robots in 2020. The retail inventory data gathered by Bossa Nova robots is being used to help manage the Walmart stores where the solution is deployed.
Sarjoun said, “Scaling this (the Walmart deployment) is a real exercise in operations engineering. It’s a rite of passage that you need to go through. There are no short cuts and it’s a big achievement for us.” Sarjoun pointed out that the Walmart deployment is a precursor to the retail industry. Walmart is a thought leader. The entire retail sector is reorganizing to support the demands of tomorrow’s customer.
The key retail trend is that consumers are becoming more demanding. Sarjoun said “We want anything we want, anytime we want it, anyway that we want it. There is a race to serve that customer, therefore the industry is evolving. Brick and mortar (BAM) retailers are becoming ecommerce players, and ecommerce players are moving into BAM. For example, we’ve seen the purchase of Whole Foods by Amazon as one example of this trend.”
Sarjoun went on to comment, “The traditional retailers have an ace card which is an installed base of BAM stores near the population centers. If they can turn a BAM store into a distribution center, then they have an advantage at the last mile. The only way to turn your BAM store into a distribution center is to know what’s in it. That’s where Bossa Nova comes in, we give real-time data of the store. When you know what’s in your store, you know what to display on your ecommerce website. You know how to pick from the shelf and deliver to the home, or have the consumer come pick it up. It’s the true omni-channel experience.”
In the use case of fulfilling an online grocery order, an associate walks the store to pull products for an online order. With an understanding of the store layout and inventory levels, you can optimize their pick path and avoid out of stock items or lead them to alternatives.
Bossa Nova 2020 Release
Bossa Nova released a new product last fall, the Bossa Nova 2020 robot. It has a smaller footprint, allowing it to take up less space as it traverses a grocery aisle. The robot is also equipped with additional cameras to acquire improved imagery of the store shelves.
Sarjoun positioned the Bossa Nova 2020 this way: “We’ve peeled the first layer of the onion last year. We can now easily deploy autonomous robots, and they’re super safe (around the public). The data is of the highest quality. The service delivers a measurable ROI”.
The next layer, according to Sarjoun, is how to optimize it. The key is to optimize the coverage of the robots. The goal for Bossa Nova is that every time the robot gets on the store floor, it should maximize its scanning.
To achieve this goal, the Bossa Nova 2020 robot design team had several priorities:
- Make the robot thinner so that it can traverse closer to the shelf. This helps the Bossa Nova 2020 robot to be more out of the way in a normal “super store” aisle. In busy (or crowded) aisles the robot will have a greater chance of successful scanning.
- Extend the scope of what the robot is scanning to previously out of scope areas such as fashion inventory counting. For example, the Bossa Nova 2020 can now scan RFID tags, enabling it to scan RFID tags on clothing. The Bossa Nova 2020 also includes downward looking cameras which enable it to view fresh produce displays, and look into multipack freezers. All of these features help extend the store aisle coverage for the Bossa Nova 2020 robot.
- The smaller footprint of the Bossa Nova 2020 robot also opens up the market for stores with narrow aisles or operations in smaller stores.
Overcoming Merchandising Hurdles
Looking ahead, I asked Sarjoun what remains as a technical hurdle for achieving success in the coming year. His response centered on the issues that exist with the needs of the manufacturer merchandising teams.
The current state of merchandising best practices is evolving towards “shelf-ready packaging”. With shelf ready packaging, the product whole case is prepared for display in store. The case top is removed and the packaging unit is placed on a shelf. With many shelf ready packaging designs, the consumer facing side of the packaging occludes a view deeper into the shelf for inventory checking. The implication for Bossa Nova robots, is that they struggle to image and deduce an accurate inventory count when such shelf ready packaging is deployed in store.
To solve this issue, Bossa Nova is now working directly with manufacturer merchandising teams to evolve shelf ready packaging designs. The goal is to allow merchandising teams to meet their marketing goals while at the same time producing a packaging design which enables the Bossa Nova robots to accurately (and autonomously) count inventory. This enables the design to be more technology friendly.
Sarjoun said, “We bend over backwards to adapt. But we adapt to what they put on the floor, including promotional displays. We build solutions to address all of these concerns”.
Bossa Nova just returned from the National Retail Foundation (NRF) 2020 tradeshow in New York City. The annual NRF “Big Show” is the most important retail technology show of the year. At the event, Bossa Nova was overwhelmed with interest in their inventory tracking solutions. Bossa Nova is emerging as a market leader in the retail inventory application.