From checkout-free stores to meat vending machines, technology has been attempting to deliver convenience and novelty to consumers in many weird and wonderful ways. The terrain is constantly changing, as what were once merely intriguing ideas become realities.
But what are some of the more innovative concepts and how could they have widespread appeal? While something like a holographic coat hanger is probably a swing and a miss, perhaps an in-store robot assistant could keep the turnstiles spinning.
Amazon delivery robots
While it seems that Amazon’s patented drone delivery system (Amazon Prime Air) remains eternally grounded, the world’s most valuable public company has unveiled a six-wheeled robotic home delivery robot called Scout.
The machine, which is the size of a small cooler, travels along pavements to drop off goods and is being trialled across Snohomish County, Washington, accompanied by an Amazon employee chaperone.
While Amazon has made its gazillions largely in the e-commerce market, the company acquired Whole Foods Market in 2017 and is in the process of expanding its Amazon Go convenience store chain, both of which have established the multinational’s presence in the bricks-and-mortar market.
Though the Amazon Scout seems to be being released exclusively for the company’s e-commerce arm, more universal application of the little six-wheeler in the future cannot be discounted. Earlier this month, Starship Technologies unveiled a fleet of similar robots in collaboration with Sodexo to deliver Blaze Pizza, Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks coffee to Virginian college students.
Imagine leaving your front door in the morning to pick up your milk and newspaper and being greeted by a self-driving, mobile grocery shop. That’s the dream of San Francisco-based start-up Robomart, which is looking to usher in an age where shoppers can browse groceries right at their door.
This time last year, Food Spark reported that the company was seeking to license its technology to retailers – and just a few days ago, it announced its first deal: a partnership with Stop & Shop, which has more than 400 locations throughout the northeastern part of the US.
The Robomarts are constantly stocked, which takes away the need to create a basket of goods (either online or in store) and set a delivery day, while the idea of the big weekly (or even monthly) shop also goes out the window.
Augmented reality has been around for a while in the retail space but largely as a bit of a gimmick. And while Amazon is reportedly working on a fashion-orientated AR app that will “revolutionise the changing room,” the likes of Lacoste, Topshop and Zara all incorporated the tech at some point in the last decade purely as PR stunts.
But AR might soon become a more useful concept rather than simply taking centre stage on one’s Instagram story.
UK start-up Dent Reality has developed a rather nifty app that provides customers with a more interactive shopping experience. If you’re going for groceries, for example, detailed information will appear for everything you pick up and hold to the camera. As you wander around, offers, guides and frequently bought products also pop up on screen.
Directional arrows leading customers to the products they want is also a pretty cool feature. No more getting lost looking for poppadoms.
US start-up Caper has started to roll out its AI-led self-checkout carts, with the company looking to rid the world of checkout lines.
Caper, which has raised almost £2.5m in investment, makes a shopping trolley with a built-in barcode scanner and credit card swiper. Three image recognition sensors and a weight sensor complete the ensemble.
“It doesn’t make sense that you can order a cab with your phone or go book a hotel with your phone, but you can’t use your phone to make a payment and leave the store. You still have to stand in line,” said Caper co-founder and CEO, Lindon Gao.
He’s got a point.
Robot shop assistants
The rise of the machines? Perhaps they’re just looking for a job. Last January, Scotland’s first robotic shop worker, named Fabio, debuted in a Margiotta store in Edinburgh. His job was to offer samples and to give information and directions. With his charm, wit and (apparently) hugs, he was an immediate hit.
Until he wasn’t. Fabio lasted just a week before it became apparent he was tiresome, gimmicky and fundamentally bad at his job.
But the robots will not be discouraged. This month, US retailer Giant Food Stores announced that a whopping 172 Marty robots are being added to its portfolio of stores across the country.
Says a sticker on every robot: “Marty is an autonomous robot that uses image-capturing technology to report spills, debris and other potential hazards to store employees to improve your shopping experience.”
Autonomous shopping is coming and robots may be a big part of that process.
A bit of a Big Brother-type innovation that incorporates facial recognition and tracking systems is currently being trialled in Malaysia.
Kuala Lumpur-based Sunway Velocity Mall has adopted tech that can identify shoppers in the mall by their unique mobile phones and collect data, including how full the mall is, where the customers shop, how frequently they visit and how long they stay.
Customers are then provided with customised notifications and offers based around their routines. It can even identify those customers with a birthday and direct them towards any stores that are offering celebratory offers. Children’s whereabouts are also reportedly monitored.
While the system is already prevalent in malls across Singapore, we guess it might take a bit of persuading to get the UK involved, despite us having more CCTV activity per capita than any other European country.