Depending on whom you ask, Kroger is either making a gigantic mistake or solidifying its online future.
At issue is how the largest traditional U.S. supermarket chain is navigating the shift to e-commerce, which became even more pressing during the pandemic as online grocery sales boomed. The retailer was late to embrace the web’s potential. But under pressure from Amazon’s arrival in the category and Walmart’s massive investments, Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen is now overseeing a bold wager on robotics that the company lifer needs to get right.
The key to McMullen’s plan is visible at a 375,000-square-foot facility in Monroe, Ohio, about 30 miles north of Kroger’s Cincinnati headquarters. Three stories above the warehouse floor there, robots the size of dishwashers whirl atop a grid of tracks so large that the lines converge in the distance, like a scene from the sci-fi movie “Tron.” Their mission: retrieve cereal, soda and 28,000 other items from 21 levels of stacked crates and then convey those goods to humans who sort and deliver them to homes.
The fulfillment facility can pick a 50-item order in less than five minutes, much faster than a human worker grabbing goods from a store. Opening this spring, it will serve a region stretching from Louisville, Kentucky, to Indianapolis and Columbus, Ohio, with a mix of same-day and next-day service.