Simbe Robotics Inc. recently announced an expansion of its contract to deploy Tally autonomous mobile robots at BJ’s Wholesale Club warehouse stores. These robots operate within the shopping area to continually monitor product inventory levels by imaging the pallets of items and reconciling the data with the warehouse management system.
We recently sat down with Simbe co-founder and CEO Brad Bogolea to catch up on this latest news and discuss how the inventory monitoring automation market is evolving.
Simbe is well-established in front-of-store grocery inventory applications. Is this application mature now with robotics?
Bogolea: Yes, and the unique thing about environments like BJ’s Wholesale Club is that it’s not the kind of front-of-store environment as we’ve previously deployed robots for. With front-of-store warehouse environments, there are a bunch of opportunities for stores that are similar to BJs, including Costco, Restaurant Depot, and Cash and Carry stores. There are now wholesale stores like this all over the globe.
In grocery, we’ve celebrated several chain-wide adoptions now, but we’re still in the early days of the market.
Inventory management seemed like a “holy grail” problem for mobile robots, and there have been several high-profile failures of similar systems in the market over the past few years. What has your experience been, and what are some of the challenges to getting it right?
Bogolea: We’re doing it every day for our customers. There are a lot of companies out there that don’t have product-market fit. There are a lot of companies out there that are selling way ahead of where their capabilities are.
The market has flushed itself, but at the same time, our business has grown about 30x since the pandemic, and we have grown 3x, year over year just last year alone. So our business is healthy.
Nobody in the industry has the number of banner partners and proven level of solutions and results that we have. We have built a real business. That said, there has been a lot of noise, and there have been a lot of competitors. Many have had funding challenges or other scenarios [that affected their businesses].
This is such a large global market. Look at how many grocery stores and other stores are out there around the planet. This is a huge opportunity.
How do you compare inventory counting for a consumer warehouse use case like BJ’s versus a typical grocery-store use case?
Bogolea: In the warehouse use case, you get a greater perspective volumetric understanding of what’s on a pallet, but I would say the retail grocery world is a lot simpler use case.
The reality is, that if a product isn’t on the shelf, then nobody can buy it. That’s primarily what the grocery retailer cares about. On an average grocery inventory scan during the day, we can often see 500 to 3,000 out-of-stock items. If it’s out of stock, then an alert needs to go out to restock the item.
A lot of product comes into the stores through the front door, through what are often known as direct-to-store delivery partners. This is like your Pepsi, Frito Lay, and Anheuser Bush trucks.
Based on our signal, these companies are optimizing truck rolls based on the shelf data that we’re giving these partners in conjunction with our retailers. So we can show them what the shelf looks like before they come into a store and then verify that their work happened.
So have you found an optimal deployment scenario for the grocery in terms of store size?
Bogolea: We’re certainly focused on larger-format retail grocery environments. We have grocery stores as small as maybe 10,000 sq. ft. We have some of the hypermarkets in the 250,000 to 270,000 sq. ft. Anything smaller than 10,000 sq. ft. is a convenience store size.
What are some of the new functionality that you had to develop to support the warehouse club use case like BJ’s?
Bogolea: As we go up and down the aisles, we’re identifying and segmenting every price tag, we’re decoding the barcode and making sure that a price tag matches the point of sale system.
These paper tags are changing almost weekly. The average grocery store has anywhere from like 20,000 to 45,000 unique SKUs. These club environments have a smaller assortment, but bigger piles of things. It may only have 6,000 to 10,000 products.
For tracking the pallets, we added volumetric assessments to understand how much product is on the floor. We can set alerts and queue restocks based on SKU types.
We are also looking at the steel shelving above the shoppable area and validating where the back stock is stored, helping to manage lost inventory and empty shelf space for storage.
So when something is selling out, we know precisely where the back stock is located and can communicate that to the restocking employee. Likewise, when the truck arrives, we know exactly where the empty steel is and can direct the forklift driver where to put the back stock. We also know which items can be double-stacked and which can’t.
Finally, we’re keeping track of inventory aging so that products can be pulled on a first-in/first-out basis to keep the freshest inventory on the floor for shoppers.
How often are you scanning inventory for a warehouse club like BJ’s?
Bogolea: It’s up to the retailer when they want to schedule it. Most of our customers do one full scan in the morning when the store opens. They want to know what the store looks like when customers arrive and verify that restocking happened overnight.
Then, we often do a scan just post lunchtime and then scan again in the evening.
What new features do you have in the software?
Bogolea: For the merchandising team and store management teams, we keep a visual record of each scan with the digitized inventory records. This enables leadership at these retailers to log into any of these stores at any time and ask a question like: “Is the Valentine’s display up yet?”
They can see how shelf conditions change throughout the day. Is restocking going the way that it should? What does sell-down look like?
We also see a unique opportunity to work with our retail partners to broker this data back to the broader market. Selling that data to the brands or direct-to-store delivery partners so that they can make more informed decisions about their products.