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Grocery Stores of the Future

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   With Japan landing their Hayabusa2 spacecraft on asteroids and both Samsung and Huawei releasing foldable phones in the near future, it would be hard to argue that society is not living in the future we imagined at the beginning of the millennium. Technological advancement is progressing at record pace, but engineers have not overlooked the everyday consumer in their futuristic pursuits.

   Grocery stores may seem like sliced bread; there isn’t much room for improvement, as there are few issues on which to improve. You go to your local grocery store, get what you need, and leave. It is pretty simple and has worked for centuries, ever since the emergence of the farmer’s market. The world is constantly evolving, though, and it is safe to assume that the supermarket has room for evolution of its own.

   Automation is slowly taking over and odds are high that your local supermarket has installed a self-checkout area where you scan and bag your items yourself. Amazon decided to take this concept a step further in 2016 by premiering Amazon GO, a store free of checkouts altogether. To enter the store, customers must download the Amazon GO app which must be signed in to a credit card connected Amazon account, and scan their unique ID code at the entrance. The online shopping colossus designed a system of cameras and sensors governed by a self-teaching algorithms, coined together as “Just Walk Out Technology”, that monitors what you pick up, put back, and ultimately walk out with. Customers are charged upon leaving the store, saving a digital receipt to the app for reference. While Amazon GO only has 10 locations in Seattle, Chicago, and San Franciso, Amazon intends on expanding to a staggering 3000 locations by 2021. Sam’s Club is slowly introducing similar technology in the southern US, while Sainsbury’s is attempting to bring checkout-less stores to the United Kingdom.

   Innovation is enhancing more than just the checkout lines of grocery stores though. Kroger and Microsoft have partnered to develop a new kind of shelf to line the aisles of your local grocery store. The EDGE shelf, or Enhanced Display for Grocery Environment, is intended to replace the basic plastic runners that line nearly every store shelf currently in use. EDGE’s long strips of LED displays connect to a cloud based computer in the store, powered by Microsoft’s Azure system, and can be unanimously updated at any time. Customers Scan, Bag, Go app will be able to select a custom icon tied to their shopping list that will show up on the EDGE displays when the customer comes near. When looking for a specific item, customers can tap on the item in the app and the EDGE display will light up underneath the product they are looking for if they are in the right aisle.

   In addition to the practical benefits, EDGE shelves promise to provide an environmental advantage to Kroger’s locations. Brett Bonner, vice president of Kroger’s research and development division, states that by eliminating paper labels, locations will be able to dim the big, bright lights needed to properly illuminate labels on the shelves. The back-lit LED displays will take very little energy to run, causing an overall savings in the electricity needed to run the store.

   Grocery stores will see smartphone integration outside digital shelves, though. Dent Reality, a UK-based technology company, has plans to introduce AR, or augmented reality, to grocery stores, as well as museums, airports, and malls with their app, Retail AR. A video posted on founder Andrew Hart’s Twitter account demonstrates the app reading and recognizing the product shown to it, adding it to a ‘cart’ on the app. The app can then offer suggestions as to other products that go well with the products you’ve already picked up and will lead you with on a Pokemon Go! reminiscent virtual path to exactly where that product is.

   The app appears to use a logo recognition system, or possibly a barcode scanner similar to Under Armor’s MyFitnessPal, to retrieve a product’s nutritional information. Presumably, your entire cart’s nutritional information will be tallied, similar to MyFitnessPal, which can help shoppers attain weekly nutritional goals. One of the few details Hart has announced about the app is that the pathfinding feature is reliant on stores using Dent Reality’s AR mapmaking software to set points for every product in a given store.

   While EDGE shelves and AR require smartphone connectivity to reach their full potential, smart-carts and stocking-bots would be available to everyone regardless of cellular ability. Ahold Delhaize, parent company of both Stop & Shop and Giant/Martin’s (same store, different operating areas), has begun testing an automated robot named Marty that is programmed to patrol the store and look out for any safety hazards on the floors, such as spills or dropped items.

   Lowe’s is taking their robotic implementation one step further with LoweBot, a multi-lingual assistant that Lowe’s has been testing in select stores around San Fancisco’s Bay Area since 2016. By partnering with Fellow Robots, a retail-focused robotics and AI company, Lowe’s is aiming to increase customer satisfaction with LoweBot, an automated greeter and guide. Equipped with a detailed map of the store, LoweBot greets customers and guides them directly to whatever they came to buy. According to Lowe’s, this allows for staff to focus their attention on any questions customers may have. This is all on top of monitoring the store’s inventory and presumably keeping a sensor out for any safety hazards, as Marty does.

   In a more advanced endeavor, South Korean retail store E-Mart has teamed up with LG Electronics to create ‘Eli”, a smart-cart designed to combine self-checkouts, robotic guides, and grocery carts in one, intelligent assistant. The two companies have worked together to engineer a cart that will follow you, either by voice or proximity sensors, and allow you to scan your items as you collect them. Eli can also guide you to specific products, scan coupons, and even help you locate your car in the parking lot. When a customer is done shopping, Eli can accept credit cards or mobile payments, like ApplePay or GooglePay, and then find its way back to a charging area where it will be available for another customer.

   Behind the scenes, Wal-Mart is testing out a way to improve on their grocery pick-up service with a machine named AlphaBot. Designed by robotics company Alert Innovation, AlphaBot is meant to be an unseen system that works in a warehouse-style, densely packed backroom that holds all of the shelf-stable, refrigerated, or frozen goods offered by the store. Instead of multiple aisles for customers to browse at their leisure, stores utilizing AlphaBot would only need a waiting room of sorts. Customers would select the products they wanted either online or in store and AlphaBot would retrieve their order in a matter of minutes from the warehouse on the other side of the wall. Though fresh produce and meat would be picked out by humans to assure quality, orders are estimated to be filled in 3-4 minutes on an average day, with high-traffic times like weekend mornings taking around 8 minutes. AlphaBot is not respective to Wal-Mart, and if successful could be introduced in other grocery store chains. Alert Innovations has even trademarked the name Novastore, which is the brand name for their completely automated supermarket concept.

   Aside from AlphaBot, Wal-Mart is coming in at the bottom of the technological movement. While Amazon, Krogers, Lowe’s, and E-Mart are reinventing the grocery store experience for the consumer, the company with the highest revenue in the entire world for the past six years is advancing in a more simplistic way. As for automated associates, Wal-Mart has begun testing a robot that simply patrols the store, monitoring inventory, as LoweBot does, as all while cleaning the floors. Another robot that Wal-Mart has filed a patent for is a smart-cart that can follow shoppers around, similar to E-Mart’s Eli, but current information makes the cart seem rather simplistic. While Eli features self-payment abilities and the ability to seek out hard-to-find items, Wal-Mart’s cart looks more like a normal cart with a repurposed Roomba underneath it. The patent is extensive, though, and the cart could evolve in due time.

   Though this all sounds boring in comparison, Wal-Mart may actually be the most promising store yet. Rather than attempting to present an entirely new grocery shopping experience, Wal-Mart is focusing their automation on tasks that are “repeatable, predictable, and manual”. Competitors are vying to change the way you shop while Wal-Mart is enhancing the way you currently shop, which is a significantly easier challenge to work on. With thousands of Wal-Mart locations around the world, instituting an expensive and extensive new technology would take millions of dollars in addition to the years it would take to work out the bugs that could arise. With simple technology, like robots that patrol aisles for empty shelves and Roombas that attach to currently existing carts, Wal-Mart could begin instituting their advanced shopping experience within a few years. By next year, you could have a robotic friend working to make your shopping experience even better.

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