Retailers

Kroger Checks Out a Smart Cart

Checkout-free KroGO rolls into Cincinnati store
Caper Kroger
Photograph: YouTube

Scoot over, Amazon Dash. Here comes KroGO.

The Kroger Co. has been quietly testing a souped-up shopping cart that can weigh items, provide shopping suggestions, and scan and pay for orders without requiring shoppers to visit a traditional checkout lane, WGB has learned.

The Cincinnati-based retailer is calling the unit, which is provided through a partnership with startup tech firm Caper, “KroGO powered by Caper.”

Plans for a wider rollout are not set at this time, though with 2,700 grocery stores in the U.S., the new technology could potentially be significant for Kroger, its shoppers and Caper. A company spokesperson confirmed to WGB that a test has been ongoing since this fall at a Cincinnati-area store. Additional deployment “will be guided by insights from our customers and associates,” the spokesperson said.

Caper officials reached by WGB declined immediate comment.

kroger krogo caper smart cart frictionless checkout

Faster Checkout, Less Contact

Introduced 84 years ago in a Humpty Dumpty supermarket in Oklahoma City, and save for Aldi’s nifty coin-enabled lock innovation, changed very little since, the shopping cart could become a significant vehicle in a race toward checkout-free grocery shopping that is very much up for grabs. Stores today are experimenting with a variety of options ranging from purpose-built small stores to the newly born chain of Amazon Fresh grocery stores, all eight of which feature a proprietary smart cart it calls Amazon Dash. 

Though still in the testing stage, Kroger appears to be putting some effort behind its presentation of the sleek KroGO cart, including custom branding, store signage, dedicated webpages and a promotional online video. In Cincinnati, it encouraged trial of the new cart by offering shoppers a 5% discount on Kroger-branded items bought while using it.

KroGO joins other recent initiatives at the company—including a massive forthcoming rollout of online shopping capabilities supported through an exclusive U.S. partnership with Ocado—intended to support what officials call a “seamless” and convenient shopping experience mimicking the relative ease of online shopping. That mission has taken on additional gravity amid a pandemic that’s turned the checkout lane—long identified as an unpleasant experience for physical store shoppers—into one that also introduces risks of virus transmission. That is acknowledged in Kroger’s messaging around the KroGO offering, which promises its “fastest checkout ever,” and promotional signage reading, “Faster checkout. Less contact.”

Caper, based in New York, launched the Caper Cart in 2017, providing what it calls a “plug-and-play” option for grocery stores to meet consumer demand for more convenient shopping. The carts incorporate computer vision and sensing technologies to scan items as they are placed into—or taken out of—its carts. A “deep learning” AI algorithm in the meantime supports an ability to recognize items over time, which could eventually obviate the need to scan. The carts include a built-in scale to measure items sold by weight, and a dashboard-like screen at the handle that can deliver shopping list recommendations, promotional offers, and wayfinding capabilities, as well as a reader for shoppers to scan their loyalty app and a credit-card payment processor enabling checkout.

krogo cart

These advances aren’t all about convenience for the shopper. Company officials say that some stores around New York testing the Caper carts, including Foodcellar & Co. in Long Island City, showed basket sizes some 18% above average, in part through buying suggestions that helped to build bigger rings, but also because “shoppers really love them,” Ahmed Beshry, a co-founder of Caper, told WGB in a 2019 interview.

Retailers could potentially also benefit from lower labor costs and greater productivity over time, as well as new insights into how shoppers traverse stores and interact with merchandising displays and real-time messaging.

Caper, whose financial backers include Instacart co-founder Max Mullen and Red Apple Group, the New York-based owner of Gristedes and D’Agostino stores, late last year introduced a countertop checkout device intended for small stores called the Caper Counter. Its carts have also been deployed in some stores of the Canadian grocer Sobeys, whose officials said they were among efforts to “thrill” their customers.

Kroger said shoppers would need to use existing checkout technology to process certain items, including gift cards, behind-the-counter pharmacy items and tobacco products. KroGO is also not accepting payment via cash, check, EBT or WIC or paper coupons at this time. Kroger is encouraging users of KroGO to bring their own shopping bags, “gently” return the carts to a designated area in the store, and use existing self-checkout lanes to exit.

A Frictionless Revolution

The grocery industry is seeing a revolution in technology-equipped options to reduce checkout “friction”—a sore experience point for shoppers that worsened for retailers and shoppers alike amid contagion anxiety last year. These pain points helped to elevate “speed to shop” alongside price and quality as the top drivers of consumer preference in selecting where to shop, shopper data firm dunnhumby said last week in its annual Retailer Preference Index study.

Options to skip traditional checkout range from self-scanning devices and apps residing on shopper’s phones; “roving” checkout ambassadors; and a handful of new, retrofitted or experimental stores enabled by shelf- and ceiling-mounted cameras and sensors. These technologies have generally been deployed in small spaces with limited selections, and not all efforts have advanced beyond the testing phase. Other well-funded young companies like Grabango and Trigo Vision are at work retrofitting larger stores with similar technologies but those too are barely off trade-show circuit.

Veeve, a Seattle-based startup founded by former Amazon employees, is among companies working separately on a smart cart its officials have suggested could reduce reliance on third-party shoppers to enable pickup orders. Other startups such as Shopic are envisioning retrofitting existing carts with scanning devices.

Amazon’s aforementioned Dash Cart in the meantime has met acclaim from shoppers who have tried it. Similar to Caper, Dash includes a product scanner and a scale, though its relatively small size—not much larger than a handled basket ideal for “one or two bags” of groceries, officials say—and a differing checkout technology are among the aspects distinguishing it from KroGO.

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