News

The new meaning of convenience: Inside Co-op’s Milton Keynes delivery robot trial

The Co-op has vowed to take a differentiated route to online selling from the start and the results of a trial of a Starship delivery robot are showing how effective this can be.

Since April 2018 the UK convenience retailer has been operating a trial of delivery robots in Milton Keynes that will see over 15,000 grocery deliveries being completed by the end of the month.

While this may sound futuristic, the project is still part of the company’s mission to be the “number one convenience retailer in the UK”, says Jason Perry, senior strategy manager of food digital, speaking at eDelivery Expo.

Customers place the orders through the Starship app, with a flat charge of £1 per delivery and no minimum order charge. After downloading the app, customers specify the neighbourhood they are in and the app tells them if the service is available in that area.

The order is picked by a staff member in the store and handed to the robot, with customers able to choose from a range of around 700 products or a quarter of the Co-op’s range. They can then track the journey using the app.

The robots mostly ship orders sized within the retailer’s “top-up” vision of convenience shopping rather than being used for large weekly shops.

Weekly orders are up 4.5 times since the programme was launched. Most orders come on Saturday and particularly Sunday when people are more likely to be home.

How does this affect costs? The £1 is Starship’s fee for the robot, but there is an increased cost for Co-op in picking orders, which would normally be done by customers in store. Perry says the company is able to absorb that cost.

Perry pre-empts what he says is a regular question: does anybody try and steal the robots? The answer is that there have been zero thefts so far. There are all sorts of mechanisms in place to prevent that, including an industrial lock, CCTV, GPS and the fact that the device is only around the price of smartphones currently on the market.

In fact, says Perry, the local community has embraced the robots, regularly posting about them on social media, with some children even using them to post thank you letters back to the store.

The first store to launch the service in Milton Keynes West reaches around 9000 homes and around 60 robots. The programme has expanded to a second store, which reaches a further 2000. Since around 200 stores are refitted each year this provides an opportunity to add new services.

The Co-op has recently launched its own ecommerce offering, as well as offering its products through the Deliveroo on-demand app.

It’s clear that one of the UK’s top convenience stores doesn’t necessarily see the future of convenience being in the store.