Artificial Intelligence

No Cashier? No Problem: The Checkout-Free Future Of Grocery

What’s a grocery store to do if it wants to go cashier-less but it’s not Amazon Go? There are a number of tech companies trying to answer that question for stores of all sizes, from large chains down to smaller mom-and-pop markets.

It’s easier said than done, according to Liu Yang, growth hacker at AiFi Inc., one of the tech companies working to make inroads in the space. Amazon Go operates in a very controlled space with a very controlled population of customers.

Trying to bring the same experience to a more heterogeneous environment or to a small business that lacks Amazon’s deep well of funding presents a challenge that most players in the grocery space have not yet been able to surmount, Yang said. Indeed, many have yet to even consider it.

She said that’s why scalability is the most important thing a tech company can offer if it hopes to see any degree of adoption. Yang told PYMNTS how AiFi aims to do this, with the goal of making artificial intelligence (AI) as ubiquitous in retail as WiFi.

The Limits of Amazon Go

Inevitably, a company working to remove cashiers from the grocery shopping experience is going to hear a few comparisons to Amazon Go. However, Yang said AiFi creates a few advantages that Amazon Go does not – nor does it aim to, as the eCommerce giant is not trying to create a cashier-less experience across a variety of grocery stores, only at its own.

First, to create an Amazon Go store, one must build it from scratch, complete with all the necessary cameras and sensors. The average retailer doesn’t have the flexibility to do that, said Yang. Margins are thin in this business. Grocers need an upgrade, not a replacement.

Second, Amazon Go stores are small – around 18,000 square feet – and the actual shopping area is much smaller than that, making it more like a convenience store than a grocery store, Yang said. For this tech to benefit the general public, she said, the scale needs to be much, much larger.

Third, Amazon Go stores are for Amazon Prime members only. The cameras are able to identify shoppers as they enter – but this is much harder to do when there are many more customers, not all of whom are members, and many of whom may not want to be identified while grocery shopping.

Yang said AiFi aims to solve all three problems for grocery stores with a computer vision system that retailers can simply adopt, lowering the time and cost investments necessary to update the checkout process – whether the store is small or large, and whether customers want to be identified to pay invisibly or prefer to remain anonymous.

Grocery Is Ready for the Future

Yang has observed an industry-wide readiness to try new things as retailers struggle to differentiate themselves – and nowhere is this truer than in grocery, a crowded space where players cannot afford to keep lowering prices to compete.

New strategies are needed, said Yang, and going cashier-less is one option – which can save retailers money they would have paid in wages, as well as streamlining and improving the customer experience.

Computer vision technology has more to offer grocers beyond enabling invisible payments, Yang said.

It can help stores keep track of goods that are running low so it can restock before they run out, and can help prevent shrinkage by detecting shoplifters before they make it out of the store with stolen goods. On average, Yang said grocers lose 1.5 percent of revenues because of shrinkage – which is why inventory management is the next area AiFi plans to tackle, she said.

Computer vision can also help grocers collect data to help improve operational strategies, such as optimizing store layout by showing which areas see the most and least traffic.

Finally, Yang said that taking employees off the registers can have benefits both for customer satisfaction and for the employees themselves, who often find their work tedious and fraught with idle time spent waiting for customers.

In a store without registers, she said, those employees would be free to move around the store helping customers with individual needs, providing the personalized experience that retailers are working so hard to create across the board in today’s market – and taking the role from below-entry-level drudgery to something with a higher degree of job satisfaction for workers.

The Rest of Retail May Follow

Yang noted that grocery is not the only retail category that struggles with shrinkage and optimization. The same computer vision and AI technology that can enable cashier-less checkout at the supermarket could help solve these same problems in other retail settings – maybe even across entire shopping malls one day.

Imagine going to the mall and never having to stop to pay. For consumers, it’s brilliant, terrifying and dangerous all at once. For stores and shopping centers, however, the ease of invisible payments could deliver a boost for brick and mortar at a critical point in the omnichannel transformation.

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