Robots Won’t Save Shoppers This Holiday Season…

empty shelves still exist in many places; this will affect holiday shopping as well. Photo by Keith Shaw.
Empty shelves are still being seen in stores, before the expected rush of holiday shopping. Photo by Keith Shaw.

Quick quiz question time: When is the start of the 2020 Online Holiday Season?

A: Black Friday

B: Cyber Monday

C: November 1st

D: Right now may already be too late.

If you answered anything other than D, enjoy explaining to your friends and family why they’re gift didn’t arrive on time. Of course, you could always try to postpone Christmas to February 2021 or have an “Imaginary Christmas” like the Flanderses:

Rod and Todd Flanders celebrate imaginary Christmas. Many consumers in 2020 might have to celebrate if they don't complete online ordering earlier this year.

The best time to start your online holiday shopping is now – and do it before everyone else realizes that ongoing supply chain and logistics fulfillment issues will even get worse the closer we get to December.

Last year, I wrote for Robotics Business Review that the use of autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) and automated guided vehicles (AGVs) was at a tipping point for the holiday season. For the most part, robots helped in filling a record number of online orders during the holiday season. Continued data reports and predictions from analyst firms confirm that within the logistics space, AMR usage will continue to skyrocket.

Interact Analysis last week predicted that revenues in the mobile robot space will reach $2.4 billion this year and surge an additional 50% in 2021, despite the chaos being felt around the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The prediction falls in line with the idea that the pandemic will lead to greater demand for mobile automation due to staffing shortages, combined with increased online ordering demand.

But these increases in the use of mobile automation won’t happen overnight, and adoption of robotics within the logistics area did not provide a cure to the shortages and delays experienced over the past six months. I still see empty shelves in grocery stores, and my e-commerce experiences haven’t fared any better.

The summer period is often considered “off peak”, where stores should be stocking up and preparing for the holiday shopping frenzy that starts in November, but that’s not the case in 2020. Within the past three months I’ve experienced the following with online orders:

  • A two-month delay in the fulfillment of a T-shirt order from a website that usually completes and ships orders within days.
  • Ordering gifts 4-6 weeks ahead of a family member’s birthday or holiday to then sweating it out to see whether the delivery would make it on time (often with the package showing up one day beforehand).
  • Going onto Amazon Prime and seeing a one-week minimum delay for some items – sure, Amazon will ship the order in one or two days to fulfill the Prime membership, but they won’t fill the order for 4-5 days.

These are not exotic items that I’ve ordered, but rather items that in previous years would have been filled within hours and delivered within one to two days, thanks in part to automated systems and robotics.

It’s going to get worse

The National Retail Federation said online and other non-store sales were up 14.6% in 2019, with overall 2019 holiday sales rising 4.1% compared to 2018. In a recent survey of retailers about their thoughts on 2020, 74% agreed that “given the state of COVID-19, consumers will likely spread their holiday shopping out over several months.” Almost half expected consumers to start shopping in October, and 52% expect to advertise sales next month as well. If you are one of those people who get annoyed about seeing holiday merchandise before Thanksgiving, you’re going to see it out before Halloween this year.

The NRF hasn’t yet offered predictions on the 2020 season in terms of online shopping, but it doesn’t take a fortune teller to see that the numbers will go up. Here are five reasons why consumers will shop online heavily in 2020:

  1. COVID-related experiences of people going to the store to find empty shelves will get them to plan ahead and do their shopping online for the holidays.
  2. While some consumers may choose ship-to-store options, they’ll quickly discover inefficient order fulfillment processes at brick-and-mortar locations, which will mean long waits for people picking up items. After one bad experience, they will choose ship-to-home options instead, even if it costs more.
  3. A potential “second wave” of COVID infections, which many are predicting due to colder weather coming in November and through the winter, will likely delay shipments and fulfillments even more as workers get sick. Any potential second wave of lockdowns will force people once again to order items online.
  4. Warehouse workers are already feeling the pressure to fill orders amidst COVID-related delays. It’s unlikely that they’ll suddenly work less (or faster) during the holiday shopping season and feel happier about their jobs.
  5. Half of the country will be in a bad mood because of the 2020 election results in November (and we may not even know the results in December). The last thing that people will want is to be in a physical store or mall waiting behind someone who is annoyed because their candidate didn’t win.

Are there solutions? Sadly, probably not for this year, unless a retailer, third-party logistics provider or other warehousing operation is already in the middle of an automation program. Locus Robotics announced that its robots recently completed 200 million “picks”, and they will likely hit 300 million before the end of December.

Whether those picks actually make it to a customer in time for the holiday is another matter completely.

Our advice at this point? Order now, order early, and order often, before everyone else does.

Keith Shaw is a general partner at Robotics Data. He was the former editor-in-chief at Robotics Business Review, and has covered technology for more than 20 years.