How many times have you been late for a meeting because you stopped to pick up your morning dose of caffeine and everyone in line had really elaborate orders?
Enter the autonomous store.
Forget about queuing at the cashier. Autonomous stores make it possible for consumers to shop as usual at the store but instead of waiting in an interminable queue, simply walk out with their purchase.
In terms of transformative enterprise technology, few developments come as close to overhauling the shopping experience as what global retailers are implementing with AI. Retailers are addressing complex supply chain problems, reducing food wastage, empowering cashierless checkouts, and introducing a range of smart solutions with the help of AI and computer vision solutions. These include real-time shelf digitization, floor-space optimization, smart carts, and intelligent product discovery.
Building a Seamless Shopping Experience
The ideal of an optimized shopping experience is pushing innovation in retail tech. The most obvious example are the Amazon Go automated stores popping up all over the country. The tech giant is trying to make this brand ubiquitous through deploying smaller stores anywhere from an office lobby or hospital to a baseball stadium. But other retailers are not far behind. Kroger Co. is introducing self-service checkouts in stores across the country. Walmart (WMT) recently announced its plans to innovate its supply chain operations through the acquisition of warehouse automation company Alert Innovation, which uses robots for order fulfillment.
Applications are not limited to retail stores. Sodexo, the food and facilities management company, recently partnered with Aifi to launch Eat NOW Autonomous Grocery Stores at the University of Denver campus foodservice. This gives students 24/7 access to food via high-tech vending machines with touch interfaces, and delivery robots that provide virtual dining services right inside the dorm rooms.
Retailers understand that customer retention might well depend on convenience and customer engagement during the shopping journey — even in brick-and-mortar stores — including the key component of ensuring a seamless checkout experience.
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Knowing Your Customer is Key to Success
The baseline of any successful retail shopping experience lies in knowing your customers. Retailer apps will gently nudge the shopper with frequently bought items, better and more personalized product discovery, and yes, reminders on shopping lists they may have created. In another example, GAP has leveraged inventory optimization and size-profiling solutions based on AI &ML for their customers. This takes the guesswork and inefficiencies out of inventory management and enhances customer satisfaction with highly accurate size profiles.
More importantly, retail AI can be a strategic tool when it comes to product discovery and improving search conversions across the retail stack. The algorithms work to capture finer details about a brand including its product style and fit, and work to build a richer taxonomy so products are better categorized and easier for shoppers to find and buy.
This kind of innovation can also pave the way for more personalized product discoveries. Smart shelves, which track inventory of all products and place orders as necessary, can also track consumer behavior and offer unique insights into the popularity of products.
Simplification Critical for Retail Technology
There is a reason why Amazon Go has been around since 2017 and it’s only now that we are starting to see the announcement of new store locations picking up pace. Amazon’s technology uses a complex array of cameras, sensors, and weighted shelves. While this has certainly enabled Amazon to unlock a level of automation rarely witnessed among competitors early on, many are starting to catch up with simpler, more cost-effective retail tech.
AiFi, for instance, uses only cheap off-the-shelf cameras to track customers, while its computer vision powered by neural-network models conduct activity and product recognition. This makes it much easier to scale and AiFi has succeeded in opening at least 80 stores across the world, while Amazon is only hovering around half that number.
Clearly, there is a case to be made for simplicity in retail tech but we may still be months, if not years, away from witnessing autonomous tech in big box stores of 100,000+ square feet. The technology is currently capable of tracking hundreds of shoppers, but interpreting the behavior of thousands of consumers in mad sale rushes is still beyond its grasp.
The need for biometric scans or installing a specific retailer’s mobile app separately might also give some customers pause. In order to ensure a truly seamless experience, retailers need to work on a payment solution that is versatile and in tune with customer needs while also facilitating easy returns/exchanges.