Automation has seen a major adoption in the retail industry since the start of the pandemic. With labour growing scarcer and pricier, retailers have shifted their attention to cashier-less checkout options to stay in business. Now, that experience powered by robots is available in the Netherlands. JD.com, a leader in supply-chain based technology, has opened two robotic shops in the country.
Meet Ochama, JD.com’s robotic shops brand
On 10th January 2022, JD.com opened two robotic shops under its “ochama” brand name. These shops, which operate as a pick-up outlet for app-based orders, are located in Leiden and Rotterdam. With its new robotic shops open for mere two days, JD.com is already preparing to open two more such shops in Amsterdam (Diemen) and Utrecht.
For businesses, one of the major challenges during the pandemic has been the predicament of keeping their doors open. With employees falling sick and the need to maintain social distance inside their premises, businesses overwhelmingly turned to technology in order to run their shops with fewer or no employees.
Amazon has seen great success in this space with its cashier-less convenience stores called Amazon Go. Startups like Standard Cognition are outfitting existing stores with AI-powered checkout tools. Netherlands, which has stayed ahead on the technology curve, is also getting the taste of this technology-powered shopping experience with the opening of stores under “ochama” brand by JD.com.
Ochama robotic shops: How does it work
At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas a few years back, the major attraction was not the products being launched by tech companies but instead a robotic bartender. The sheer speed and synergy with which robots work make them attractive to human eyes. That unprecedented experience is what JD.com’s Ochama brand aims to deliver via its robotic shops in the Netherlands.
The model of these shops merges online ordering with in-store pick-up. While your traditional shop will have people to pack your groceries and other packages, Ochama shops rely on robots to prepare the parcels, and home delivery service.
Ochama, as a brand, combines “omni-channel” and “amazing” and is the first time that JD.com has opened a physical retail store in Europe. The brand is also the first omni-channel retailer in the Netherlands to offer both food and non-food items via a unified shopping application.
The first step in shopping through Ochama starts with the Ochama app available on major mobile platforms. The omni-channel shopping app provides a full range of A-brand products covering “fresh & packaged food, household appliances, beauty, maternal and child products, fashion, home furnishings and more.”
Once you place your order through the application, the automated warehouse gets into action with its fleet of robots including GV (automated ground vehicles) and robotic arms. This automation can be seen by those picking up their products at Ochama stores. JD.com describes this automated warehouse as a futurist pick-up shop.
A fleet of robots can be seen picking, sorting and transferring the merchandise. Those who order through the app can simply scan the app’s QR code at the check-out and see their orders being carried to them by the conveyor belt. This whole experience is part of a cashier-less and hassle-free shopping trip that will become normal at retail stores around the world.
The automated warehouse is not a new concept and retailers like Amazon and Walmart have been relying on them for several years now. However, this will be the first time that regular shoppers will be able to witness the hustle of robots to deliver their orders. This technology is made possible with the help of machine learning algorithms, natural language processing and computer vision.
The premise of the technology is simple. A logistics and sorting algorithm allows the robotic arm to sort through the products on its shelves. Natural language processing allows the robots to read through orders while computer vision allows them to pick up the right product by matching with the algorithm. The whole process is organised as batch automation allowing the robot to pick the product, place it on a tray and move it to check-out using the conveyor belt.
Mark den Butter, the Chief Operation Officer at Ochama, says that the company is fully tapping the technologies in logistics and supply chain management to bring automated shopping experience to Dutch customers. The brand sees the product price going down by an extra 10 per cent for the chain’s member customers with the automated shopping experience.
Is this the future of shopping?
The rise of multi-channel retail shopping experience can be described as a boon to consumers. This made it easier to find products from different brands under one roof but they also came with the hassle of a long queue at checkout. While online retail changed that dramatically by allowing us to get our orders at our doorstep, people still like going to their nearest retailer.
With the pandemic still causing disruption and people remaining cautious of how and whom they approach, robots are filling the gap left by human workers. They are not replacing humans but supplementing them. The Ochama shopping experience is proof of how technology can change our experience with something as mundane as shopping for goods.
Pass Lei, General Manager of Ochama, JD Worldwide, says, “With rich experience in retail and cutting-edge logistics technologies that the company has accumulated over the years, we aspire to create an unprecedented shopping format for customers in Europe with better price and service.”
In addition to allowing people to order online and collect their orders at the shops with fleets of robots, Ochama also offers the option to choose next-day home delivery. JD.com definitely sees this as the future of shopping but is also aware of the fact that not every city will be prepared for such a shift in experience.
The company notes that the Netherlands is one of the most urbanised countries in Europe with 92 per cent of the population living in cities with a polycentric urban structure. This has led Ochama to plan four robotic shops in the country.
“Dutch people are passionate for innovation and a green environment, and Ochama’s shopping format is designed to contribute to both aspects,” says den Butter. “There will be no queue and fewer traffic jams to do the chores as they can go for convenience, benefits and everything in one stop at Ochama.”