It’s a stamp of approval and financial reward in an increasingly competitive field: AiFi, a U.S.-based company about to launch major tests of its cashier-less grocery store technology, took home the top honors in Visa’s Everywhere Initiative contest in the United States.
AiFi emerged victorious from a field that included more than 900 submissions (of note, 71 percent of participants had at least one woman on the leadership team), an achievement that comes with a $50,000 prize and a potential partnership with Visa. Ying Zheng, co-founder and CTO of AiFi, recently talked with Karen Webster about the problems the technology is designed to solve, and what’s next for it.
No doubt the appeal and challenges of cashier-less grocery stores are reasonably well known, but a brief review does not hurt.
The Tracking Challenge
A typical grocery store is a crowded space stuffed with a mind-dazzling variety of stock keeping units (SKUs), the products spread out in an area large enough that shopping can sometimes qualify as exercise from all the walking. Unlike, say, a boutique, grocery stores often attract a large flow of customers with the numbers present during busiest seasonal peaks, perhaps rivaling the student population of some rural high schools.
That’s a lot of traffic and product to keep track of — and that’s why grocery stores spend robustly on labor costs for cashiers. Much like its rivals, AiFi is betting it can help grocery store owners save on labor, and gain a more accurate view of what SKUs spark interest in specific type of customers on specific days and at specific hours — and reduce the time those consumers stand in checkout lines. Artificial intelligence and other means combine to know what a shopper is buying, then can charge accordingly based on store payment information.
As Zheng put it during her conversation with Webster, the technology can render extinct all “those tedious lines for shoppers,” adding that U.S. consumers spend some 37 billion hours annually waiting in line. Easing all that waiting is, in her view, “beneficial for humanity.”
The idea behind the AiFi proposition is to deploy sensors, fixtures and algorithms to handle all those tasks, along with related work such as personalized recommendations and coupons for shoppers. Not only can grocers reduce their workforces (which they would almost certainly do should this kind of technology catch on), but they can free workers to help customers more closely in aisle, and save on staff turnover expenses. In addition, grocers could free up checkout space for more product.
Pilots On The Horizon — And Amazon, Too
That’s the vision. It will soon interact more deeply with reality, according to Zheng.
Last year, AiFi started work with “one of the largest retailers in the world” (Zheng offered no further details), which has resulted in not only experience, but an accumulation of data that will help revise the technology going forward. She said AiFi has two pilots in the pipeline, including one “by the end of the year.”
Amazon has already entered this space, which is usually — and justifiably — a reason for rivals to be concerned. However, AiFi is selling itself as offering something different.
The Amazon Go concept involves cashier-less stores meant for Prime members, with cameras identifying shoppers as they walk through the doors. The Amazon stores are small — around 18,000 square feet — and the actual shopping space might make consumers feel like they are something more akin to a convenience store than a supermarket.
The AiFi computer vision technology, by contrast, is designed to scale and serve larger spaces. For now, the company is focused on getting its technology into grocery stores — Zheng said AiFi aims to do the required software installation at the POS, not the easiest of endeavors given the unique ecosystem — and oversee the installation of the hardware. But, if the pilots prove successful, the company could eventually take its technology into other sectors, Zheng told Webster.
Grocery stores represent one of the last major retail areas ripe for even more significant disruption by digital technology, frictionless payments and eCommerce tactics. If AiFi succeeds, that disruption will gain some major energy.