Innovative Shelf Care
In 1943 Jean-Paul Sartre wrote: “l'enfer c'est les autres”, seemingly inspired by this classic play (or labor costs), humanity since worked tirelessly on removing face-to-face contact from our lives. And with good reason, human communication is flexible and ambiguous by nature, so removing it leads to more efficient and consistent services.
The evolution doesn’t just happen by luring people online, even the built world is trying to reduce friction and streamlining processes by replacing human communication and replacing it with a kiosk or an application. When is the last time you talked to someone at a reception or waived at a waiter to take your order?
It’s only natural that technology is targeting to upend one of the last beacons of forced human interaction, the checkout counter!
The problem being tackled isn’t new. Self-service checkouts are a staple in many convenient stores all around the globe, but to be honest, the process is clunky at best. As a consumer, having to wield a scanner isn’t exactly a great experience, and having to put up with “random” security checks is adding insult to injury.
Better solutions should exist, and that’s what Zippin is building. Removing the checkout step completely, Zippin offers checkout-free shopping, a concept first projected into the mainstream consciousness by Amazon Go. Their technology platform consists of a combination of hardware and software components working together to closely monitor store visitors and track the groceries they take with them.
Imagery courtesy Zippin
For this solution to work, it needs to be highly accurate. To achieve this type of accuracy, Zippin combines cameras and shelf sensors and interprets the data using machine learning. The high accuracy also results in the system being able to confidently handle crowded stores. The system can interpret different customer behaviors, making it feasible to determine when a product is (mis-)placed back on the shelves.
Krishna Motukuri bringing solid experience in consumer retail, and Motilal Agrawal a computer scientist specialized in machine learning and computer vision founded Zippin in 2014. They launched their first Zippin-owned store in the summer of 2018 to showcase their technology. Since then, they added more than 30 Zippin powered stores operated by 3rd party retailers.
In September 2021 the company announced they raised $30 million from investors like SAP.io en Evolv Ventures.
🕵️♀️ Who else?
We already mentioned the gorilla-in-the-checkout-free-room, Amazon, who with their Amazon Go brand already runs 29 stores itself also offers its technology under the Just Walk Out moniker.
But the retail space is huge, and autonomous stores are a giant opportunity, so several other companies with similar solutions have sprung up. Some of the more notables are Aifi, who offers a mobile assembled NanoStore. The aptly named Grabango, Standard Cognition, and Trigo are other technology enablers in the frictionless shopping-space.
Of course, some retailers like Walmart, Ahold Delhaize and 7-Eleven are building their own custom solutions in-house. Ahold tested the pilot in their own office to power their cafeteria, hinting at how broadly applicable the cashierless technology can be.
Obviously, Covid has been a tailwind for cashierless technology as it is inherently touchless, but the core drivers on the adoption of checkout-free shopping will be convenience, efficiency and analytics.
For the customer, removing the checkout step from the shopping experience automatically removes checkout queues and the wait time while your groceries are being scanned. It also removes the friction of being confronted with the cost of living until you check your emails (or get a call from your bank).
For retailers, it reduces the work needed to run your store. Time that traditionally is used scanning goods can be used for more productive work, increasing store efficiency. On top of that, invaluable data can be gathered as a result of the many sensors that are present in the store, leading to better customer understanding and more efficient inventory management.
There might be privacy risks connected to the large scale data-gathering of such a system, but the question is how different those risks are compared to status quo. One could argue that a system where you can put privacy-sensitive items directly in your pocket, instead of having to show them to a cashier, is actually beneficial to privacy.
A common worry regarding cashierless shopping, especially in low-trust societies, concerns theft. One would instantly think that the lack of human-interaction would lead to more shoplifting. However, since you identify on entry, and it’s virtually impossible to sneak something out without it being registered, shoplifting happens actually less frequently in a cashierless store.
👎 Why not?
A legitimate question is how accurate the system really is. Just like in a system with cashiers, mistakes happen, and corrections will need to be made. How the retailer handles complaints might be one of the distinguishing traits in the cashierless future. In any case, disputes can be settled watching a recording of what happened in the store.
Another important consideration is how a cashierless store impacts the underserved communities. How can such a system make sure that people without mobile phone, or without access to banking are still able to make purchases in the store?
📚 Further reading?
Smart shelves article on TechCrunch
This might be a corner case for cashierless technology.