Amazon’s Likely First Move At Whole Foods: Bring In Warehouse Robots

Image courtesy of Consumer Reports

When Amazon and Whole Foods announced that they were getting hitched in the corporate sense, the benefits for both sides were obvious. Amazon would acquire its way into a grocery distribution network and hundreds of stores with upscale customers, and Whole Foods would get a parent company at the forefront of retail technology. What’s likely to be first up for Whole Foods? Warehouse robots.

Amazon’s planned cashier-less convenience store has received a lot of publicity lately, but the company is still working on that technology and on its bricks-and-mortar stores in general. Instead, the first area that Amazon is likely to make over if the deal is finalized will be Whole Foods’ warehouses, Bloomberg News explains.

Robots from Amazon Robotics, formerly Kiva Systems, run Amazon’s warehouses, bringing pallets and shelves to employees instead of the other way around. You can see them in action in this video from the Dallas Morning News a few years ago:

Acquiring Whole Foods means that Amazon now has enough grocery business to figure out how to deploy its robots in food storage warehouses. Like the company’s warehouses for non-food merchandise, though, these warehouses would likely add more employees rather than replacing them with robots.

Clarification: The Amazon Robotics robots apparently aren’t fans of the cold, and don’t work in the refrigerated warehouses required for grocery storage and shipping. Future versions of the robots could, but the current ones don’t.

“Because of our ability to have more inventory on-hand and increased speed of fulfillment, we are able to better meet customer demand and create thousands of associate roles, which receive competitive wages and benefits,” the company’s vice president of North American operations said in a statement about a new warehouse in Texas that opened earlier this year. “We are proud of our ability to create jobs, spur innovation and provide excellent Prime service to members.”

That could mean existing warehouse workers might lose their jobs, or they hire more workers for these facilities where humans and robots work in harmony if the company keeps expanding. They could also follow the lead of Boxed and retrain warehouse workers replaced with robots for other jobs within the company.

One logistics consultant who used to work with Amazon on its grocery obsession says that it’s possible that the e-commerce behemoth is working on million-square-foot warehouses powered by robots that would supply both AmazonFresh and Whole Foods in their regions. This would speed up shipping items to customers as well as to stores, and help Amazon compete with Walmart’s grocery operation with a bigger selection and fresher food.

“I think we’re gonna get a lot of [Amazon’s] innovations in our stores,” a smitten Whole Foods CEO Steve Mackey told employees in the meeting where the company’s acquisition by Amazon was announced. “I think we’re gonna see a lot of technology. I think you’re gonna see Whole Foods Market evolve in leaps and bounds.”

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