Tired of long lines? Canadian grocery chain debuts Smart Carts with self-checkout
Enduring a lengthy checkout line is a potential annoyance each time you set foot inside a busy grocery store.
That's particularly true during the evening rush, when shoppers descend on grocery stores for last-minute dinner items.
Instead of opening more aisles and hiring more cashiers, a Canadian grocery chain says it's introducing an innovative pilot program for helping customers bypass lines altogether. On Wednesday, Sobeys -- a Nova Scotia-based grocery chain -- unveiled Smart Carts, a fleet of 10 intelligent grocery carts that scan and weigh products as customers place them in the cart.
The carts feature touch screens that resemble the kind you might find in a self-checkout line. The screens display a running tally of purchases while customers shop and allow them to pay on the spot once they're finished shopping, according to the company.
In a video released by Sobeys, a customer scans and places food items in grocery bags inside the cart instead of going to a checkout line and having purchases bagged by a human employee -- a process that Sobeys labels the "greatest point of customer friction."
"While products and customer eating habits have evolved, the in-store grocery shopping experience has remained relatively static for the last 100 years," Mathieu Lacoursiere, Sobeys vice president for retail support, said in a company statement. "This is a unique way for us to test innovative new technologies aimed at enhancing the customer shopping experience and learn how best to make it faster and easier.
"The carts will also give our in-store teammates more time to interact with customers and answer questions about food and new products," the statement added.
In recent years, grocery stores have become an unlikely hotbed of tech innovation. Though the industry's business model had changed little over the past century, as Lacoursiere noted, a customer-driven demand for convenience is forcing the industry to adapt to remain competitive. Now, as the industry finds itself in the midst of a technological upheaval, experts say, local grocery chains are suddenly providing the public with a glimpse of a future far beyond self-service kiosks and online shopping.
Over the past year, Kroger, the nation's largest grocer, has introduced a fleet of autonomous delivery vehicles, and Giant Food Stores has rolled out a series of robotic assistants named "Marty" that scan shelves and identify hazardous spills. Last year, Kroger introduced a system called "Scan, Bag, Go" that allows customers to scan and pay for grocery items as they shop -- with their smartphone.
"We see customers pushing the envelope in the grocery industry and in our business in particular," said Yael Cosset, Kroger's chief digital officer, noting that the goal these days is to create as many convenient options for customers to get food as possible on their terms. "Sometimes that means delivery, and sometimes it's pickup, and sometimes someone wants to walk into the store.
"It doesn't matter to us if you're engaging with us through voice, mobile or web -- we know you and your purchase history no matter what the touch point is."
Pensa, an Austin, Texas-based start-up, has been testing an autonomous robotic drone that scans grocery shelves using an onboard camera. The camera allows the machine to collect valuable data about the store's ever-changing inventory before uploading its findings to the cloud and setting a supply-chain in motion.
For much of this year, Walmart customers have been able to order groceries using a Google assistant, joining Amazon-owned Whole Foods, which partnered with Amazon's Echo last year so that customers can shop using voice commands.
By next year, Walmart -- which also sells $200 billion worth of groceries each year and remains the world's largest private employer, with 1.5 million Americans on its payroll -- plans to have autonomous floor-scrubbing robots at nearly half of its 4,700 U.S. stores, part of a major effort to upgrade its business by harnessing the convenience of intelligent machines.
Sobeys owns or franchises more than 1,500 grocery stores across Canada, including stores in the Safeway, IGA, FreshCo, Foodland and Thrifty Foods chains, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Sobeys says their Smart Carts -- which were developed by Caper, a retail technology start-up based in New York City -- will only grow more intelligent with use. The grocery chain says the carts are equipped with AI and machine learning technology. As the carts improve, the company says, the carts' screens will be able to help customers navigate grocery stores, complete shopping lists and make product suggestions for recipes.
The Smart Cart is already equipped with multiple high-resolution cameras. Sobeys says those cameras -- in conjunction with the cart's sensitive scale -- will eventually make it possible for customers to toss items into their cart without having to enter information or scan bar codes at all.
Lacoursiere told the CBC that the new technology is not being introduced to replace human workers, a promise many grocery chains have made in recent months as new innovations arrive.
"We're actually able to free up some employees ... to be on the floor answering customers' questions, talking about the food, helping them choose a recipe or a product," he said. "It's not about cutting."
Early customer reviews have been positive, according to the CBC.
"It's better than the self-checkout," Stuart Eddy told the outlet after adding a bag of bulk almonds to his smart cart full of groceries. "It's fantastic."