You'll be shopping like The Jetsons pretty soon

Michael Cantalino from Focal Systems with the company's automated trolley.  Photo: Patrick Hatch
Michael Cantalino from Focal Systems with the company's automated trolley. Photo: Patrick Hatch

Supermarkets without checkouts, trolleys that push themselves and shop assistants who know what you posted on Facebook this morning.

The automation and radical evolution of bricks and mortar retail is here, and robots will soon be roaming grocery store aisles like, depending whether you're a shopper or a cashier, a helpful android from The Jetsons or a Dalek from Dr Who, built to "EXTERMINATE".

That was the talk at the National Retail Federation's annual conference in New York City this week, where new technology was on display promising to reinvent the physical shopping experience for the 21st century.

"Brick and mortar will never go away because brick and mortar is the essence of retail," said Microsoft's head of global retail, Greg Jones, on the conference's sidelines.

"But what does need to change is the fabric, or certainly the model of brick and mortar. It's not just a destination to buy, it becomes more of a showroom."

Janett Liriano, CEO of wearable tech company Loomia, says her technology can help companies learn how their products are used.  Photo: Patrick Hatch

Janett Liriano, CEO of wearable tech company Loomia, says her technology can help companies learn how their products are used. Photo: Patrick Hatch

Top of mind was how to make shopping in stores just as easy as it is online, as consumers grow accustomed to single-click payments and merchants knowing their details, order history and personal preferences.

Digital eyes

Focal System, founded by a group of former Google, Facebook and Apple engineers, is tackling that with its auto-checkout supermarket trolley. It uses a small camera and artificial intelligence software to recognise and track each item a customer places inside.

Shoppers are shown a running total on a small screen, and when they are done there's no need to scan items at checkout - they simply pay and leave. The company is working towards removing the paying part.

"Within two years we'd like you to just be able to tap your phone, put everything in the cart and walk out," Focal Systems' chief operating officer Michael Cantalino told Fairfax Media.

Woolworths and Coles are both interested in the smart trolley, Mr Cantalino said, and Australians could be using the current version of the technology "by the end of this year".

Five Elements Robotics has meanwhile taken the muscle work out of shopping with its Dash smart trolley.

Customers enter a shopping list prepared on a linked app, and Dash guides them through the necessary aisles, out to the customer's car, and will then return itself to the store.

DeepMagic co-founder Davi Geiger with its automated mini shop.  Photo: Patrick Hatch

DeepMagic co-founder Davi Geiger with its automated mini shop. Photo: Patrick Hatch

Just walk out

Another startup, DeepMagic, has used its own image recognition software to build a fully automated mini store, intended to be installed in apartment building lobbies, airports and hotels.

Entry is granted by swiping a credit card (or possibly scanning your face), and the customer can take the products they want and leave, with their account being charged automatically.

DeepMagic's chief scientist Davi Geiger, who is a professor of computer science at New York University, said one major US grocery retail was running a trail using DeepMagic's video recognition system to analyse how their customers act in stores.

"They know not only what has been picked up, what has been picked up and put back," he said, allowing the retailer to alter their merchandising accordingly.

A number of companies are using image recognition software to keep track of stock levels on shelves, such as Cosy (Cognitive Operational Systems), whose software uses either video cameras or a robot that roams a store's aisles. When something runs low, a manager is notified.

"Humans have never done this task accurately," said Cosy's COO Ed Henkler.

Cosy COO Ed Henkler with a shelf-scanning robot. Photo: Patrick Hatch

Cosy COO Ed Henkler with a shelf-scanning robot. Photo: Patrick Hatch

Over at the American supermarket Kroger, paper price tickets have been consigned to the wastebasket of history by its EDGE digital shelf end display.

Prices can be changed within minutes, even across a whole product range or a whole chain of stores, eliminating the time-consuming job of changing price tickets, while delivering personalised information or promotions to shoppers while they decide which brand of pasta to buy.

Know your customer, really well

Online retailers - and the biggest of them all, Amazon, in particular - have been able to capitalise on the huge amounts of data that follows us around the internet to know who we are, what we like, and what we might want to buy.

Retailers are now trying to bring that knowledge of their customers into the physical store environment.

One company, Xenia Retail, has developed a technology in partnership with Microsoft that can be integrated in a store's smartphone app that tracks their online search and purchasing history and, using sensors, what products they look at in stores.

The software notifies shop assistants when a high-spending customer walks in so they can treat them with the level of care and attentiveness they deserve.

A Microsoft retail analytics program can also give shop staff a full profile of a particular customer, identified by a linked app on their smartphone, or facial recognition software.

That includes what products they have bought before, their online browsing history and even what they have posted on social media recently.

Social media history can give staff an insight to the customer's interests, so the can offer products accordingly, or warn them if they have been complaining about the company on Facebook.

Stitched up

Start-up Loomia is taking product research into the 21st century with an electronic membrane that can be stitched into the fabric of clothing and footwear.

The membrane can light up or heat - perfect for winter jackets or jogging gear - but also collect data about movement and the environment it is being used in.

Loomia has entered a partnership with the century-old American outdoor wear company L.L.Bean to collect data about how its products are used, which is relayed back by the circuit connecting to the garment owners' smartphone.

Loomia's CEO Janett Liriano said that products that are used often tend to be bought again.

"So if they're seeing a big increase in use of a very specific material or class of product, they might want to stock more of that versus something else that's not being used very often," she said.

Australian company 360dgrees was showing off the virtual reality experience it built for Country Road as part of an internal trail, which transports the user to Sydney's Manly Wharf Bar among two stylish couples wearing the brand's clothes.

360dgrees' CEO Toby Ellis said when used in a store, customers could interact with the program to get more information about products or add them to a wish list

"By the time you take the headset off and walk to the change rooms, all those items are there waiting for you," he said.

While Israeli startup Mystor-E has called for the death of the shop mannequin all together, to be replaced by its digital screens that scan shoppers, identify their gender, age and the style of clothes they wearing, and displays items they will probably like.

Talking shop

Much of the focus was bringing physical retail up to speed with e-commerce. But there were some warnings for online players too: develop systems customers can use with their eyes closed. Literally.

"Conversation commerce" is the next big thing according to Intel's global director of retail sales Jon Stein, as the use of voice activated artificial intelligence software like Amazon's Alexia and Google's Siri explodes.

Around 30 per cent of internet searches are now done via voice activation, and shopping will go the same way, Mr Stein said.

"Your brand will have a voice, speaking to a shopper in her home, on the go either through a smart speaker or a smartphone," he said.

A successful retailer, he said, will have an AI voice system that brings pre-emption, prescription, suggestion, and recommendations into that conversation.

The reporter attended NRF 2018 as a guest of Microsoft.


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