Not Your Mom’s Trip to the Market: Grocery Shopping Automation

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Self-driving carts can lead or follow a consumer around the store:

  • “Leading carts” can take shopping information (such as a shopping list) from the customer and lead him or her on the most effective route through the store.
  • “Following carts” can use facial recognition or RFID technologies to identify their “assigned” shoppers, keeping close behind as the shoppers make their selections, while using proximity sensors to avoid collisions with displays or other carts and shoppers.

Fifty-five years ago, America and other countries around the world watched as George Jetson literally dropped his kids (in pods) off at school and sent his wife Jane (with his wallet and in her own pod) to the shopping center. This futuristic glimpse ended here, and we were not privy to the actual mechanics of shopping. Now, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, we are starting to see what the future of shopping might look like.

Today, most of us have experienced a dark row of food displays that light up as we approach. Now rolling out are shelves that not only sense stocking levels by weight and radio-frequency identification (RFID) but also create dynamic pricing to accelerate the purchase of slow-moving products or that modify electronic displays to guide us to our products. Soon, we may see smart and self-driving carts that follow us or lead us around a store. Autonomous mobile kiosks and robotic grocery delivery are also just around the corner.

Current Smart Shopping Technologies

Applications for smart shelves reach far and wide, from sending directional cues explaining how to find items on your smartphone shopping list to dynamic pricing screens enticing you to buy products that need to be moved. Smart shelves can facilitate automated pricing changes, which could provide labor-saving advantages over manual price changes. Additionally, customizable displays for individual shoppers can market and promote nutritional and other purchase decision information.

Consumers often react negatively to out-of-stock items. By using weight sensing and RFID tags, smart shelves can call for refills from stock rooms as products are depleting. Grocery stores can gather data from smart shelves to help optimize store layout and can use smart shelf displays for marketing and product promotion purposes (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Smart shelves facilitate custom personal promotions in real time.
Figure 1: Smart shelves facilitate custom personal promotions in real time.

Self-driving carts can operate on several principles: Some are as simple as attaching a powered motive module beneath a standard metal cart, while others are more advanced, like an all-plastic, vertical cart that minimizes RFID interference and the floor space it takes up in the aisle. Usable by individuals with reduced or full mobility, the benefits of self-driving carts can range from high-tech enrichment in a shopping experience to its low-tech self-retrieval from the parking lot.

Additional technologies could be built into the cart, such as an interactive screen to guide the shopper around the store. RFID readers coupled with weight sensors, to confirm the contents of the cart, could allow “straight to sack” without the additional step of a checkout line.

Attendant-less convenience stores have recently made headlines. The principle behind attendant-less stores is using a system of cameras, sensors, and/or RFID readers to identify shoppers and the items they’ve chosen as they move throughout the store. Smart shelves are likely to play a part in purchase assignments and product inventory and restocking. A smartphone app completes the purchase transaction as the shopper leaves through an exit portal.

Shopping Automation on the Horizon

Autonomous Mobile Convenience Kiosks

Autonomous mobile convenience kiosks are what can be described as part convenience store, part robot, and part Mr. Ding-a-ling. Autonomous vehicles will roam the target area in usage-optimized routes, responding to calls from shoppers. The kiosk comes to you and provides an experience similar to the attendant-less convenience store, but on a smaller scale.  A very cool factor here is when inventory tracking determines below-acceptable merchandise levels, the unit will drive itself home to the warehouse for restocking.

Robotic Delivery Service

Soon on suburban sidewalks, you may encounter a robot delivering groceries. Looking like a cooler on wheels, these Asimovian delivery bots (dictated by battery charge and loading and motor efficiency) will serve an area (Figure 2). Delivery robots will be equipped with Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation and a slew of cameras and sensors to help negotiate obstacles and traffic and detour around pedestrians. Customers can track delivery bot progress using their smartphones.

Figure 2: Delivery "bots" bring purchased groceries to your home.
Figure 2: Delivery "bots" bring purchased groceries to your home.

Will “Smart Shopping” Take Root?

Today’s consumers are as fickle as they are practical. Some prefer convenient checkout and easy-to-navigate stores over interacting with store associates or browsing the aisles. Others have weak loyalty bonds that may only last until their favorite item is out of stock. Smart technologies applied to grocery shopping can certainly reduce time spent searching for products, helping stores keep items on the shelves while dynamically pricing slow moving products.

On the flip side, a large portion of the populace—foodies and regular folk alike—enjoys grocery shopping on a personal level. In the US alone, roughly 2.8 million people are employed in retail food. The types of jobs that experience a reduction by automation are often basic, entry-level jobs in the community. Also, the “creepy factor” of a following cart or shelf display, especially those that talk to you directly, is worth noting. Needless to say, the technological hurdles in smart stores will likely be easier to clear than the societal ones.

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