The future of grocery stores may rely on finding new uses for AI, partly because of how we’ve all been forced to change our habits lately. Instead of just being a routine but necessary part of domestic life, shopping for groceries has recently come with potential health risks, supply chain issues leading to reduced inventories, and socially distanced interactions.
Buying habits and the push for contactless shopping are shaping the way we shop, and AI technology underpins much of the innovation we’re seeing in the grocery store.
An Adapting Grocery Store
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought forward features such as contactless payment, online order and delivery, and social distancing in stores. These new experiences have accelerated consumer expectations for the retail experience. According to Forbes, the future of grocery stores depends on making shopping a good experience for shoppers. Customers want not only ease and convenience but also less frustration, a personalized shopping experience and the ability to switch from in-person to online browsing with delivery to the home.
But, far from heralding a no-contact, machine-only, isolated experience, artificial intelligence could also free up in-store personnel for more personal interaction with shoppers. According to Itrex Group, the top AI functions in retail will be customer care and personalization, quality control, inventory management and pricing, and fraud detection. There is the potential to collect massive amounts of data within grocery stores using AI, and leveraging this for consumer and business benefit is the way forward.
An Intelligent Cart
Salon describes the Caper Cart as the world’s first AI-powered shopping cart. Instead of outfitting the retail bricks and mortar with sensors and other tools needed for automation, the Caper Cart trundles along the aisles fully equipped.
Sensors in the cart monitor purchases. Cameras in the four corners of the cart record what goes in or coming out. There’s a built-in weighing pad that can calculate the weight of all those bananas and even prices them. While you’re shopping up and down the aisles, Caper Cart is keeping tabs on your buying habits and can make personalized recommendations based on what you’ve added. For example, adding one produce item could trigger a suggestion for an ingredient that pairs well with it or point you toward an on-sale item that matches what you’re looking for.
This type of ‘sensory’ shopping also makes inventory management easier for the store. Canadian Grocer notes that the retail chain Sobey’s is trialing Caper Cart. Solutions like this make it easier for any size of business, not just the giants, to add AI tech without having to equip an entire store.
Smart Grocery Stores
Fitting out an entire store to take advantage of AI technology could make sense for larger chains in particular. For instance, Amazon Go stores were configured as completely cashier-free — a series of cameras and other sensors monitor what shoppers take from shelves for automatic check out. Removing the need to check out means no more queuing for the till. Described as ‘Just Walk Out’ technology in a Seattle Times article, the concept may also be rolled out in Amazon Fresh stores.
The smart grocery store also keeps an eye on produce: AI-enabled cameras can watch the store’s fruit and vegetables to ensure that ripeness is optimal and quality produce is always available to the shopper. Smart Brief notes that AI technology like this can help manage store workflows, increase efficiency and even enable voice assistance for a hands-free experience.
Robo Global Insights describes how Walmart is using an autonomous workforce paired with an AI network to achieve greater efficiency. Shelf-stocking robots can reach both high and low, and can keep an eye on inventory levels, scanning shelves for missing items and then replacing them. Smart shelves can also help with monitoring inventory, keeping the aisles filled at just the right level to encourage consumer purchases. If there’s a spill, smart sensors can alert a clean-up crew for rapid response.
AI technology coupled with robots can make the delivery process more smooth as well. In addition to stocking shelves, automated robots can select items from them too. When a customer order comes in, an automated system can select and pack items for delivery. In the United Kingdom, Ocado uses robots to scan the inventory and prepare a customer’s order ready for delivery.
Once the order is packed, the next step is delivery to the door, and driverless vehicles are on the way to take it from there. Fortune notes that grocery deliveries via Waymo could be coming to some San Francisco shoppers this year.
Despite how rapidly the world has changed and adapted to new public health concerns, the grocery store remains a constant in most people’s lives. New technologies repurposed for the supermarket will push groceries to be more accessible, safer, and maybe even more fun to use.
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