For years, much has been made of the decline of the high street, a subject that has been intensified by a pandemic that has kept employees away from offices, customers away from shops, and diners away from tables. There are, undoubtedly, seismic changes afoot to the role of town and city centres, not least that we will spend less time working in them, as evidenced by regular announcements from major employers about their new work-from-anywhere policies.
Yet, despite the fatalistic pictures painted by many of ghost towns littered with shuttered storefronts and abandoned office blocks, at GDR we believe that the city centre will not only bounce back but thrive.
Our towns and cities will adapt, becoming more responsive to the needs of their localities and cleaner, greener places to live and work. And fundamental to the city centre of the future will be convenience, as city planners, retailers and brands use the latest technologies to make urban centres faster and more flexible for the people who live in them.
We’re seeing these new technologies being tested and implemented all the time. Robotic click and collect systems are one such technology that has gone from strength to strength during the pandemic, and it’s one that will help our cities adapt for the future so that they can meet the new challenges posed by city dwellers’ changing needs. This article will explore the ways in which click and collect systems are advancing and why that bodes well for our city centres and high streets.
From omni-channel to omni-fulfilment, a retail revolution fuelled by robotics
At GDR we’re strong advocates for experiential retail that gives physical stores a point of difference, which cannot be delivered by any other channel. The other side of that coin is that, for other shopping missions, retail has to be as streamlined and convenient as possible, wowing customers when they want to be wowed and giving them their products quickly when they need them.
For most retailers, it is robotic click and collect systems that will make retail more convenient for their city centre shoppers. In September 2020, French supermarket chain Carrefour began to trial Retail Robotics’ Arctan machine, a robotic C&C system that enables customers to pick up their online orders without needing to interact with human staff.
This robotic system has the capacity to pack up to 200 C&C orders into temperature-controlled logistic bins, in a space of just 14sqm. The solution claims to offer the smallest footprint on the market and allows retailers to insert compact robotic hubs into their stores, car parks, or indeed other city centre spaces and travel hubs.
The benefits of this type of system to both customers and retailers are manifold. For customers, it’s quick, easy and convenient; to use, customers scan a code on their phones and have their orders brought to them within 15 seconds. The trial at Carrefour was so successful that it quickly hit the maximum 200 collections in one day. Given that the average order value in France is €80 and it costs somewhere between €20 to deliver a typical order to customers’ homes, robotic click and collect promises retailers a substantially higher margin on their ecommerce businesses. There is also the added benefit of no interaction with people; handy in a pandemic situation for staff and shoppers alike, whilst reducing staff resource.
For retailers, robotic click and collect systems offer a higher margin on ecommerce sales by bringing the people to the stock, rather than when delivering to numerous customers’ homes. By cutting out the last mile for deliveries, this reduces emissions and parcels require less outer-cardboard when being delivered to a locker than for home delivery. This combined effect can help retailers to reduce logistics costs and meet their carbon goals.
Having built more than 10,000 parcel lockers for InPost across Poland and the UK, Retail Robotics has adventurous plans to expand its own robotic click and collect solution. Under a new brand, Delipop, the Arctan machine will be rolled out in city centre locations allowing consumers to pick up their purchases from a variety of categories across multiple brands, simply by scanning a QR code. Their objective is to partner with five retailers or leaseholders per market globally and the company aims to secure 200 locations in the UK alone by next year.
Speaking to GDR, Delipop CMO and partner at Retail Robotics Marek Piotrowski, said: “We talk to the largest retailers in the French market and everyone is interested in the solution. We start our Delipop trials with the first of them this summer. Initially, our technology will aim to increase capacity on a reasonable footprint because high capacity is the main reason for lower handover costs and lower environmental impact.
“This year, we are starting with a capacity of 140 containers per machine – we would like to almost double that next year. We will also be excelling the technology for drive purposes – creating robotic drives built of 5-10 Arctans or more – and yes, also connecting them to an MFC [small format Micro Fulfilment Centre] or CFC [larger format Customer Fulfilment Centre] – as that would be the ultimate solution in terms of cost and speed and environmental benefits. This will be the case for the next two years. In five years – the sky’s the limit. We will definitely increase the range and usability for consumers.”
Meanwhile, in suburbia, drive-through (or curbside) pickup has rapidly matured during the pandemic. Already fairly advanced in the US, retailers in the UK such as Currys PC World and Marks & Spencer, have been catching up with their own contact-less drive-through offerings whereby customers scan a code from their car and their orders are brought out by a member of staff and placed in their boot. The contactless element of these systems has clearly been attractive for retailers and customers during the pandemic, but it is the sheer convenience of them that means they are here to stay.
The acceleration of ecommerce during the pandemic has also compounded the need for retailers to rethink the role of their stores and use their physical footprint to optimise fulfilment of online orders. In countries such as the US and France, major big box retailers including Best Buy, Walmart and Target have been adapting a significant number of their locations so that their primary role is that of fulfilment centre: local online orders are picked by staff and are then either delivered to the customer or the customer drops by to pick them up.
Other robotic solutions, such as Huawei’s unmanned store that opened in Wuhan at the peak of the pandemic, give customers access to products 24 hours a day. Parcel lockers are also starting to cure consumer headaches around returns. InPost has just launched a trial with UK fashion brand Missguided in which customers can add return items to its lockers across the UK, 24 hours a day, without even needing to print off a label.
The 15-minute city with greener, more equal neighbourhoods
Click and collect looks set to play a greater role in consumers’ lives when we consider the ’15-minute city’ concept that is quickly becoming the blueprint for the cities of the future. The ambition of the 15-minute city is that every resident should have access to pretty much everything they need to go about their lives, including stores, restaurants, green spaces, and office buildings, within a 15-minute walk or bike ride of their home.
The idea is that by offering these services closer to home, neighbourhoods can become pedestrianised, focusing on foot and bicycle traffic and away from road transport, which is hugely damaging to the environment but integral to the traditional city model in which everything is concentrated in the centre. Instead, every neighbourhood will have its own centre, full of services including retail that is far more locally relevant to the needs of the community.
The concept is strikingly similar to the vision of ‘localism on steroids’ outlined by our own retail guru Bill Grimsey, who sees the redemption of town centres and high streets coming when they transition into greener spaces that better serve the needs of the communities.
In February, GDR covered The Line, a breathtakingly ambitious project (that may or may not come to fruition) in Saudi Arabia that would build a 100-mile linear city consisting of a chain of small, pedestrianised communities. All essential services will be available within a five-minute walk of residents’ homes, with all travel further afield facilitated by subterranean rail networks.
As amazing as that project sounds, it’s arguably even more exciting that the 15-minute city is becoming a reality in existing cities around the world. Paris has led the way after its mayor Anne Hidalgo was elected last year on a campaign that placed the concept at its heart. Madrid, Milan, Ottawa, Seattle and Melbourne have since announced plans to shape city planning around similar models.
The model offers a concrete solution to the problem of last mile delivery emissions. Those emissions have been predicted by the World Economic Forum to increase by 30% by 2030, an estimate that may prove conservative considering it was made just before the pandemic. That’s where click and collect comes in. In a 15-minute city, with its pedestrianised communities and revitalised local retail hubs, click and collect offers the perfect solution to the last mile, getting online orders to customers within walking distance of their homes in a more sustainable way.
Tomorrow: click and collect at the heart of the smart city
Our cities are heading towards becoming more decentralised and more sustainable, but the imminent rollout of 5G around the world will also enable them to become unprecedently efficient and convenient. This year Toyota began construction of the Woven City, a 175-acre urban development at the base of Mount Fuji. Powered entirely by hydrogen, the city will become a living testbed for everything promised by the concept of the smart city: autonomous vehicles, robotics, connected homes and artificial intelligence.
Like the Woven City, the cities of tomorrow will use the vast amount of data they generate to power an incredibly efficient and optimised system of living. From a retail perspective, this will mean products getting into customers’ hands wherever and whenever they want them. For retailers this creates the potential to move services typically associated with hypermarkets in suburbia, not just into major cities, but even inside their customers’ buildings and homes.
Auto-replenishment will play a big part in this, and points to a future where customers will be notified that their products are waiting for them in smart lockers before they even know they need them. Amazon is rolling out its Dash Smart Shelf, a system which seamlessly reorders household items when it detects them running low, while Candy offers an all-in-one washing machine subscription that does the same thing for detergent.
Other companies, such as Alibaba’s logistics arm Cainaio, have been experimenting with lockers that can automatically change size and temperature according to the contents of the package. Another Retail Robotics solution, PickupHero, promises to streamline the process of picking up parcels from local convenience stores though small-format robotic click and collect units that fit into 90% of local stores.
Automation will also enable those planning for 15-minute cities to ensure that residents have access to hyper-local services in their own buildings. Last May, Quick Eats opened in a residential building in Santa Ana, California. Working in a similar way to Amazon Go, the tiny, 108 square foot convenience store is completely unmanned and residents just need to scan their phones when they enter and again to pay when they walk out. Onii offers a similar model in Brazil, while TULU uses the same tactic to offer a rental platform in consumers’ own buildings. Residents can browse from a range of household items and appliances to rent on the TULU app, then head to the TULU room and scan the item’s QR code to rent the item for up to three days.
We may all be waiting a little longer than we hoped for the dawn of the “Roaring Twenties”, but when it does come it will coincide with an urban revolution centred on robotics and automation. To prepare for that future, retailers need to be thinking now about how they can leverage these technologies to deliver to customers more sustainably and conveniently.