Kmart has revealed plans to deploy an inventory tracking robot called TORY into every one of its physical stores in Australia and New Zealand over the next 15 months.
By December 2021, Kmart expects to have 271 stores across Australia and New Zealand. It presently has 187 stores. Each is in line for a TORY robot under the project.
The TORY robot, made by MetraLabs, will roam stores during quiet times - mostly overnight - triangulating exactly where apparel and homeware items are and how much stock is left.
It does this by scanning for radiofrequency identification (RFID) tags that are attached to the labels on products (known as stock keeping units or SKUs in retail parlance).
Kmart Group managing director Ian Bailey said today that the group anticipated deriving “significant benefit” from the storewide robot rollout.
He said the robots had been trialled in Kmart’s research and development operations in the United States - which occur under its ‘Anko’ brand.
“This technology was one of the benefits of the research and development project run out of Seattle,” Bailey said.
“It has now been tuned to Kmart stores and is about to be rolled out across the fleet over the next 15 months.
“The result is a quantum improvement in inventory accuracy for apparel from 60 percent accuracy at an SKU level today to 95 percent, and the 95 percent is by location within the store.
“This is the first of our digital store improvements which will always be focused on improved customer experience and lower operating costs.”
Bailey said that each Kmart store will get a single TORY robot “which docks at the back of the store.”
“TORY can navigate the store when customers are there, and we did this in Seattle, however we do see operating TORY when the store is quiet as our preferred approach,” he said.
“Overnight, TORY self-navigates around a store and triangulates the exact location of each RFID chip in X, Y and Z dimensions.
“Unlike barcodes, RFID is specific to an item and each chip is unique. This gives us the ability to know on which fixture an item is, and even know where it’s in a place it should not be. Sometimes products are picked up in one place and put down in another, equally some products will be in the back-of-house or near the changerooms.
“With this technology we can find them each day.”
Bailey said the retailer would initially use TORY to keep track of apparel and ‘soft home’ inventory, though may extend to other category types if it believed it could achieve “adequately strong results”.
For apparel and soft home, Bailey said the robot would help improve the recovery of a store following a trading day, “which then leads to better on-show availability for our customers”.
He said the robot would also improve inventory data quality which would aid product replenishment.
TORY is also expected to have a positive impact on Kmart’s ability to pick and fulfil online orders, which is performed in the store closest to where the online customer is located.
“[TORY will enable] faster online picking by being able to find the products more quickly,” Bailey said.
By the same token, it would also help staff provide “better customer service to help customers locate the products which they’re looking for.”
Bailey said that Kmart is continuing to make improvements to its e-commerce operations, with substantial work occurring over the past 12 months.
The company said at the end of last year it would re-platform its e-commerce operations, and Bailey indicating this work is progressing.
“A new online platform is being implemented which will provide a more stable and scalable online environment and avoid the issues we have had with the website in previous peak periods of demand,” he said.
“The online platform is already underway and will be progressively implemented during this financial year and next.”
Bailey also said that Kmart is turning to “new technology and data science” to add flexibility to its supply chain, while maintaining the advantages of the existing “low cost, high volume flow model [that] has served Kmart well for many years”.