Walking into Countdown’s giant Penrose e-store, at first glance it looks like any regular supermarket, with bread carriages, chillers and endless aisles of product.
But walking further into the massive 8800sq m fulfilment centre is the real star of the show: a 5.7m-high, 32m-long vending machine-like unit imported from the United States, simultaneously picking product and packing the supermarket chain’s online orders.
The unit can hold 11,000 products and is restocked daily.
After the goods have been picked and packed into tote bags, 5ft-tall robots pick up the order in a crate and zip it across to the drop-off area ready to be loaded into delivery trucks.
Countdown has spent tens of millions of dollars on the packing unit, and will do the same again in coming months as it prepares to install a newer version of the tech complete with a chilled portion at its Christchurch-based e-store.
The autonomous unit is only the 10th to be deployed in the world, and second in Australasia, designed and developed by Boston-based start up Takeoff Technologies.
That’s a big leap of faith for the tech, though parent company Woolworths says it is not merely a material capital investment for but rather a “material strategic investment” as a larger share of the grocery market moves online.
The artificial intelligence-powered technology is what you would expect to see in Amazon fulfilment centres across the world.
Sally Copland, Countdown acting managing director and general manager of digital, says the technology and facility will, within time, move to become a 24-hour operation. The unit is currently running 10-12 hours each day.
The tech went live last week after 21 weeks of installation and development, and was game changing for grocery fulfilment, Copland told the Herald.
“It’s a first for New Zealand to have this technology. It’s only the second in Australasia and it is really about us being able to automate, speed up and grow our service here.
“We’ve seen rapid growth in the adoption of our online shopping service, both in delivery and pick-up, and part of us getting this facility up and running was about servicing the growing delivery demand, which then means in our stores we can service the growing pick-up demand also,” says Copland.
Countdown says the automation makes fulfilling online shopping orders five times faster, and it expects to be able to pack 15,000 orders out of its Penrose e-store each week.
It is staffed by approximately 200 staff who hand-pick perishable items for orders such as meat, produce, bakery items and frozen and chilled goods.
The Penrose e-store will be used as a testing ground for the technology to decide on whether this should be rolled out more widely to other dark stores; supermarkets dedicated to fulfilling online orders only.
Work has already begun on installing a second automated unit in its Christchurch e-store, set to open later this year, as a way to service its fast growing online business in the South.
Woolworths has another of these fulfilment units in operation in Melbourne in Australia.
About eight Takeoff Technologies and Knapp technicians are temporarily based in New Zealand for the implementation and roll-out of the fulfilment units, making sure everything is running smoothly and training staff on how to operate the tech.
About 10 staff at any given time are operating the vending-machine-like technology.
Woolworths Group reported over 40 per cent growth in online orders in its first quarter of the current financial year, and noted that Covid-19 had, like many retail businesses, accelerated the growth of its e-commerce business.
Countdown first launched online shopping in 1996 and has been a market leader in rolling out stores dedicated to fulfilling online grocery orders.
Despite its leaps towards a digital future as a much larger portion of shopping is conducted online for delivery, the group said there was still room left for traditional stores and it would continue to open more supermarkets alongside e-stores.
Earlier this week Countdown opened its 183rd supermarket in Auckland’s Wynard Quarter.
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