The evolution of autonomous retail

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WHAT IS AUTONOMOUS RETAIL?

The age of autonomy is upon us – from driverless vehicles to sentient fridges; removing human input becomes more prominent as systems are introduced to simplify or eradicate remedial processes.

We describe autonomous shopping systems as technology to which consumers can delegate substantial parts of the shopping process.

Designed to make the experience more efficient for both the shopper and the retailer, autonomous systems cover payment, queueing, delivery, analytics and more.

Vending machines prove the earliest iteration of autonomous shopping, developed in London in the early 1880s to sell postage stamps and still a considerable part of the autonomous formula for retailers today.

The 1990’s saw the first self-checkout machines designed and patented, but grew to prominence in the early 2000’s.

As of 2013, there were 191,000 self-checkout units deployed across the globe, and by 2025, it is predicted that 1.2 million units will be installed worldwide.

However, since the pandemic, over one-third (34%) of Brits say that self-checkouts cause significant anxiety due to hygiene concerns and proximity to other shoppers.

September 2007 saw the first contactless cards issued in the UK, allowing shoppers to make payment with just a tap.

Since then, contactless payment has become commonplace and even more so over the past year, with reports stating that 50% of people in Britain (over 23 million) haven’t used cash at all during periods of lockdown and have relied exclusively on card and contactless payments.

Today, we see technologies that bypass the traditional queueing and paying we’ve grown accustomed to, with autonomous stores tasked with tracking who a customer is, where they go in store, what they’ve picked up and what to charge the them when they leave.

HOW DOES THE TECH WORK?

Amazon’s ‘Amazon Go’ stores were the first automated stores opened to the public.

In its first store trial in Seattle, shoppers noted hundreds of cameras fixed to the ceiling across a mere 1800sqft space.

The multitude of cameras fitted inside the store use machine learning algorithms to do articulated pose recognition – a fancy way of saying they keep track of each person’s position in store to know precisely what is picked up by whom.

Additional sensors on individual shelves support computer vision algorithms by detecting weight and pressure.

Amazon has such confidence in their system that, following a reporter managing to leave the store without paying for a yoghurt, Amazon staff were happy to let them keep it. This comes down to the cost-saving from reduced staff and security.

Along with reduced human error, these improvements are more than enough to cover the occasional system flaw.

Standard Cognition is another industry leader in retail automation technology.

The difference in Standard’s tech compared to Amazon’s is that their systems do not use facial recognition technology. Meaning the tech offers greater privacy assurance, with no biological data collected from the user.

This system works by building a 3D image using two or more cameras to calculate depth, similar to how a pair of human eyes would, then tracking customer movements and product positions to establish what a customer is buying.

WHAT ARE SOME EXAMPLES OF AUTONOMOUS RETAIL STORES?

Alongside Amazon, the UK’s leading supermarket chains are looking to invest in autonomous technology within their existing stores and transportable or ‘pop-up’ convenience stores.

Most recently, Morrisons have trialled a store with no checkouts or staff at its Bradford head office.

Scanning an app upon entry grants the shopper access to the store. The shopper can then enter, pick up their goods and leave, with the tech capturing the required data and doing all the work.

Coop Norge has introduced its semi-autonomous store in Gävle, Norway, featuring its own ‘Scan & Pay’ app for in-store payments.

The hyper-local store is staffed throughout the day and functions the same as a regular convenience store. The store enters its autonomous mode at night, and shoppers must unlock the store via the app to gain access.

WHERE COULD AUTONOMOUS STORES BE USED AND WHAT ARE THE ADVANTAGES?

Especially with transportable stores, there is an abundance of use cases where stores improve efficiency, service communities and reduce overhead and staffing costs.

For instance, on a university campus where students may not have access to round the clock shopping, staffless automated stores can facilitate late night shopping without the need for costly shop and security staff.

Rapid Retail’s transportable stores used by retailers including Co-op, Costcutter, Spar, Premier and more, have been deployed for similar scenarios and provide the perfect housing for an autonomous set up.

Events and festivals often lack a general convenience store for essentials, leading campers off-site for their daily goods. A transportable autonomous store could offer the same range as a nearby corner store, with greater accessibility and convenience.

Automation offers numerous benefits to both staff and shoppers. Autonomous stores allow retailers to:

  • Operate more efficiently
  • Capture customer data
  • Reduce human error, e.g. removing the need for manual data entry
  • Improve employee productivity, e.g. staff can use digital systems to provide stock info when customers enquire (availability, pricing, locations, variations)
  • Offer around-the-clock operations
  • Create a seamless and digitally managed experience
  • Reduce overall operating costs based on the above

And for shoppers:

  • Fast and frictionless shopping experience
  • Minimised contact
  • Accessible 24-hour shopping
  • Complete contactless service

WHERE DO WE SEE RETAIL IN 5 YEARS?

Don’t worry; we don’t see the robots taking over entirely over the next five years.

Food prep and stocking shelves are just some of the jobs we don’t see robots taking over in the next few years; although, many warehouses, including Amazon’s, already utilise robotics to sort, pick and pack goods in place of humans. Advantages include assisted heavy lifting, reduced room for human error and minimised injury risk.

Verifying ID for age-restricted products still sees a need for staff. However, ID apps are becoming more common, and advancements in these systems alongside facial recognition may lead to a solution for autonomous stores.

For now, we can expect to see further trials from leading retailers to understand costs and iron out any issues. It is improbable that we’ll see a large-scale rollout anytime soon, with time need not only for research but to ease the public perception and introduce the concept in a way that offers complete peace of mind to shoppers.

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