Whole Foods warehouses seen as ideal turf for robots
When Amazon’s $13.7 billion bid to buy Whole Foods was announced, John Mackey, the grocer’s chief executive officer, addressed employees, gushing about Amazon’s technological innovation.
“We will be joining a company that’s visionary,” Mackey said, according to a transcript of the meeting. “I think we’re gonna get a lot of those innovations in our stores. I think we’re gonna see a lot of technology. I think you’re gonna see Whole Foods Market evolve in leaps and bounds.”
A major question about the acquisition is what Amazon’s technology will mean for those Whole Foods workers. Will it make their jobs obsolete?
Experts say the most immediate changes will likely be in warehouses that customers will never see. That suggests that the jobs that could be affected the earliest would be in the warehouses, where products from suppliers await transport to store shelves, said Gary Hawkins, CEO of the Center for Advancing Retail and Technology, a Los Angeles nonprofit that helps retailers and brands innovate. As Amazon looks to automate distribution, cashiers will be safe — for now.
Amazon sees automation as a key strategic advantage in its overall grocery strategy, according to company documents reviewed by Bloomberg News before the Whole Foods acquisition was announced.
Whole Foods has 11 distribution centers specializing in perishable foods that serve its stores. It also has seafood processing plants, kitchens and bakeries that supply prepared food to each location. Those are the places where Amazon could initially focus, according to experts.
Adding robots to warehouses hasn’t dented Amazon’s hiring. The company had 351,000 employees at the end of March, up 43 percent from a year earlier. CEO Jeff Bezos in January pledged to hire 100,000 more workers over the next 18 months, coinciding with pressure from President Donald Trump on U.S. companies to create jobs.
Amazon has not had the fresh food sales volume to justify big investment in refrigerated warehouses. Whole Foods gives them an incentive to reinvent how groceries get to consumers’ stores and doorsteps.
Brittain Ladd, a supply chain consultant who spent two years working on Amazon’s grocery push, said Amazon may be considering building a network of automated warehouses designed for the grocery business. These would likely be 1 million square feet — large enough to serve Whole Foods and Amazon’s various other grocery initiatives like Amazon Fresh and Prime Pantry — and would utilize robots and automation to reduce labor costs, he said.
“The goal will be to create as advanced a distribution capability as possible to provide customers with exceptional service and the freshest of fresh produce, vegetables, and meat,” Ladd said. “Amazon will win the battle against Wal-Mart by winning with fresh food.”
A big challenge for Amazon will be applying its logistics know-how regarding durable, long-lasting products like books, toys and tablets to delicate perishables like strawberries and steaks that have to be handled gingerly, stored at different temperatures and inspected frequently for signs of spoilage.
After automating warehouses, Amazon may introduce robots in the stores. But don’t expect them to replace cashiers immediately. The first ones will likely navigate aisles to check inventory and alert employees when items run low, said Austin Bohlig, an adviser at Loup Ventures, which invests in robotics startups.
“These robots can operate alongside people inside a store, but Amazon will want to make absolutely sure they are safe,” he said.
Amazon said it has no plans to introduce that technology to Whole Foods, though a person familiar with the matter said the company is considering eliminating cashiers as part of its long-term grocery strategy. The person asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on private matters.
A worker at a Seattle Amazon Go store, currently open only to Amazon employees, is seen through an exterior window as he cuts up chicken earlier this year.