3 ways grocers are elevating online order picking in their stores

Picking online orders is still causing headaches for grocers on multiple fronts, with customers often groaning about inadequate substitutions or bruised produce and in-store shoppers jostling with e-commerce workers to select products in the aisles.

Major players like Kroger are looking to solve those dilemmas with dedicated fulfillment sites for online orders and automation that takes the burden of order picking off store associates and gig workers. But many other grocers continue to rely on in-store fulfillment for online orders. Sometimes this is by choice — Walmart, for example, is leaning on its existing retail locations’ proximity to customers to help fulfill online orders — and sometimes it’s due to financial constraints that keep them from investing in off-site e-commerce infrastructure. 

Sources in the industry outlined three key areas grocers can invest in to help make in-store order picking more efficient while also offering a quality experience to both in-store and online customers: store design, technology and training. 

As an incentive to step up e-commerce fulfillment, some companies, like SpartanNash and Shipt, have positioned their workers as high-touch personal shoppers and promoted their services as a competitive advantage.

Person reading product information.

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SpartanNash relies on its own workers to pick and pack orders for its Fast Lane service across more than 70 Midwest stores and for Groceries to Go, the e-commerce service available at its Martin’s banner.

“What we find is that, as our customers get used to the program and used to [SpartanNash’s personal] shoppers who are working, they’re going to say, ‘I specifically want Maria to shop my order. She knows exactly what I’m looking for,'” said Matt Van Gilder, SpartanNash’s director of digital marketing and commerce.

Designing (and redesigning) stores for picking efficiency

E-commerce fulfillment is a “huge” focus for grocers as they consider their store designs and layouts, said Craig St. Clair, associate principal at Cuningham, an architecture, design and planning firm. But the need for e-commerce infrastructure can vary store-to-store depending on customer demand and online order volume. 

“It’s a very store-centric thing. Every store has its personality in terms of the customer base around it — if they’re even receptive to doing online shopping,” St. Clair said. 

Grocers are hesitant to invest in dedicated e-commerce facilities as consumer interest has waned following online shopping surges early in the pandemic, St. Clair noted. Overall, grocers that are seeing high online order volumes are looking to improve shopper flow and carve out dedicated spaces for online order fulfillment inside their stores, St. Clair said along with Gregory Houck, principal and director of New York at the same firm. 

Both St. Clair and Houck stressed the importance of grocers being flexible with their store design so they can accommodate e-commerce workers now and, eventually, automation, which Houck said forward-looking grocers are planning for in the next 10 to 20 years.

In some cases, grocers are moving dry goods and center store to the back-of-house and accentuating fresh foods departments and meal solutions front-of-house, they noted. This can enhance stores’ “fresh” appeal while also pushing aisle shopping, which can get crowded with online and in-store shoppers, to the margins.

Mike Demko, senior vice president and global head of AutoStore Retail, said grocers are carving out dedicated picking spaces inside their stores stocked with fast-moving products.

For example, Angelo Caputo’s Fresh Markets, a grocer in the Chicago area, uses 5,000 square feet at its flagship store to create a “fast pick area” stocked with products that have the highest online sales volume, Demko said. 

“If you think about grocery orders, everybody loves bananas, everybody buys milk, so there’s some items that are much faster sellers than others,” he said, noting that grocers can organize products in those dedicated areas based on how fast they sell instead of following in-store merchandising plans, which are made with in-store shoppers in mind. 

Worker checking inventory in a digital tablet at a supermarket.

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Leveraging technology to boost speed and service

Grocers and e-commerce providers have been turning to technology solutions to address picking problems, from speeding up the process to improving quality around product selection.

For example, Instacart announced earlier this year an in-store navigation tool with an interactive map of the grocery store to help locate products more easily as part of its rollout of features and services for its shopper community. Last year, Walmart said it saw customer acceptance of substitutions jump more than 95% after pivoting from a manual process for identifying substitutions to employing deep learning artificial intelligence for online grocery orders. Walmart noted deep learning allows it to consider hundreds of factors, like size, type, brand and price, when determining recommendations for out-of-stocks.

The effectiveness and usage of technology to drive picking efficiencies can vary depending on how a store operates, how much e-commerce volume it has, how quick the fulfillment window is and whether humans or robots are doing the picking and packing, sources noted. Speed and order volume, in particular, may determine which picking technology solutions retailers turn to.

A roughly 40,000-square-foot grocery store that uses software and scanning technology to pick multiple orders at a time from stores shelves can assemble roughly 60 to 90 units an hour. A “fast pick area,” like Caputo’s, more than doubles that up to about 150 to 180 units per hour, said Demko, who previously headed up pick-and-pack software company Locai Solutions, which AutoStore acquired last year. Demko also formerly oversaw operations at FreshDirect.

Automation, like robotic picking technology in the back of a store, can bring those numbers up to 400 units per hour, he said.

While automation is still off in the future, mainly due to its high costs currently, sources said they expect robots to eventually take over e-commerce fulfillment. 


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