To speed up the home delivery of groceries, the Giant Co. on Monday opened a large e-commerce warehouse and fulfillment center in the Eastwick neighborhood that aims to fill online orders from Center Center to Cherry Hill.

Giant Co. president Nicholas Bertram said the COVID-19 pandemic “reaffirmed our need for this facility,” which debuted with 69 robots and 125 workers. The Southwest Philadelphia facility is part of a $114 million expansion that Giant is undertaking to support its ecommerce business in the Philadelphia and South Jersey region.

The new 124,000-square-foot facility is about a 10th the size of the biggest Amazon warehouses. But it “is a game-changer” for groceries, said Angel Cordero, facility manager for the new warehouse at 3501 Island Ave. “Our customers have changed, and online shopping is the new norm. New Jersey, here we come.”

Daren Russ, director of e-commerce operations for Giant, said the grocer plans to double the number of human workers to 250 as soon as possible. Wages start at $16 an hour, and drivers earn more including tips.

The warehouse expands home delivery in Philadelphia and for the first time into southern New Jersey, starting Nov. 16, to Camden, Cherry Hill, Gibbsboro, Haddonfield, Marlton, Medford, Mount Laurel, and Voorhees. More communities in southern New Jersey may be added over the next few months, Russ said. Over time, it will expand its services in surrounding Pennsylvania counties, as well.

Based in Carlisle, the Giant Co. is a unit of of Belgian-Dutch conglomerate Ahold Delhaize. And much like other online retailers, Giant is wagering that new technology will help streamline order fulfillment using robotics and vertical integration.

Giant operates 190 supermarkets, 132 pharmacies, 107 fuel stations, and more than 150 online pickup hubs and grocery delivery service in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. Its brands include Giant, Martin’s, Giant Heirloom Market, Giant Direct and Martin’s Direct.

In Philadelphia, the grocer has expanded from its first store in 2018 with plans for a total of 10 by the end of 2023. Besides three Giant Heirloom Markets and its Philadelphia flagship Riverwalk store, Giant will debut its next store on Cottman Avenue on Nov. 12, followed by a Giant on Columbus Boulevard and a Giant Heirloom Market in the Fashion District Philadelphia by the close of 2021.

» READ MORE: See photos inside GIANT's Eastwick e-commerce fulfillment center

How It Works

When an online customer places a Giant Direct order online at giantfoodstores.com, human workers see the order on their iPhone-sized computer tablets on their wrists. To select the goods, they work alongside a complex grid of robots to gather the items for bagging.

The robots are not like the 6-foot-5-inch, 130-pound, gray and googly-eyed robot named “Marty,” known to roam Giant’s stores to scan for such hazards as a fallen bag of sugar.

Rather, the robots are contained in two giant, Rubik’s-cube-style “grids” — one for non-perishables and another at the far end of the warehouse for “chilled” or perishable groceries. Both are roughly 50 foot high — about halfway to the ceiling — and are linked to computers and the workers through tablets on their wrists.

Human workers program in orders and the robots sort items into blue plastic bins, a system designed for Giant by Swisslog.

After bagging, Giant’s human workers place orders on trucks for delivery.

The center is expected to fulfill up to about 15,000 home delivery orders a week, up from a current 3,000 a week, Bertram said during a tour of the facility.

“We have a lot of unmet demand, especially in places like New Jersey,” Bertram said. “We’re competing with pretty much everyone — Amazon, Whole Foods, Costco, FreshDirect.”

Giant charges $98 a year for a membership or $12.95 a month to qualify for unlimited delivery. The cost is $7.95 for non-membership delivery.

U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, a Democrat from Delaware County, highlighted the “need for more equitable access to online,” which should be helped by the infrastructure bill now in the final stages in Congress, she said.

Scanlon said she’s particularly interested in making sure low-income Philadelphians could purchase groceries online with government-funded benefits.

Families using SNAP, a benefit called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, have the option to pay for Giant grocery delivery and pickup orders with an EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) card. A credit or debit card is required to make a purchase using an EBT card to cover any costs that are not eligible for SNAP.

Omnichannel Shoppers

Giant is focusing on so-called omnichannel customers, who split their shopping between in-store and online, one executive said.

These customers, who might request deliveries when they’re too busy for the store, ultimately spend more and are “stickier,” said Bertram. “This automated technology means we can fulfill more orders in less time. We’ve also noticed that roughly 58% of our online customers are women.”

The grocer also just reopened a store at PMC Property Group’s Riverwalk development project on the Schuylkill’s eastern bank, which was closed after recent flooding, and has been opening smaller-format shops under its Heirloom brand around the city.