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OPINIONTechnology

Walking Through the 'Store of the Future'

Behind the Headlines: New video and report demonstrates how close we may be to a seamless, connected supermarket
Store of the Future
Photograph: YouTube

rebekah blog

We hear the word “seamless” quite often in the grocery industry.

The term, which is defined as “having no awkward transitions, interruptions or indications of disparity,” can be applied to anything in the store—from mobile checkout to the use of loyalty coupons—and is often seen as a way to connect e-commerce with brick-and-mortar. However, the broad scope of the term can often make the concept seem intangible and confusing.

I have struggled with the idea at times myself, often wondering “how could a grocery store really ever be ‘seamless?’” That is why my jaw dropped when I watched a new video born from a partnership between the Coca-Cola Retailing Research Council and Kantar Consulting, which accompanied their “The Store of the Future” report and provides a viable glimpse into what this type of seamless, connected grocery store could look like.

The video imagines a “shopper of the future” who is planning to throw a party in her smart home and must buy items accordingly. Before leaving for the grocery store, the smart home helps the shopper take note of her inventory. She then pops on a pair of smart glasses and is on her way.

As the shopper nears the grocery store, the retailer is alerted and the store’s smart technology can begin collecting information on the shoppers’ needs and habits to provide suggestions that will expand her needs into “connected solutions” to help build a larger basket.

When the shopper arrives, the store manager is alerted to her identity and a brief overview of her needs, which allows him to make suggestions such as considering some of the new wine options. As she shops, the predetermined replenishment portion of her shop is prepared in the back room of the store and she can add items to that list.

Once the shopper moves toward the bakery, cake options are streamed to her device since the store is aware that she is throwing a party and the bakery staff is able to move around its production schedule so that the cake is ready by the end of the shopping trip.

When she reaches the produce section, the shelves communicate directly with the shopper to convey information such as fruit ripeness and offer suggestions. In this scenario, the smart system knows the shopper is throwing a party and is known to create fruit combinations. Additionally, the system alerts the manager that the shopper is spending an above-average amount of time in the section and comes over to ask if she needs help.

The store manager is later alerted that the shopper is building a larger basket than expected and is able to find her location in the store and let her know her cake is ready to give her some extra attention.

Finally, the shopper moves toward the front of the store and is able to decide whether she would like to take the items home with her or have them delivered, and confirm payment right on her device.

Store of the Future from CCRRC on Vimeo.

Yes, in earlier decades we all thought there would be flying cars by the year 2000, and this video felt like a similarly outlandish concept at first glance, but the futuristic grocery store imagined in the video may be closer to reality than one would expect. Look to Sam’s Club’s Innovation Center in Dallas, for example, which incorporates augmented reality into the store and provides mobile scannable item information and checkout. Or China-based Alibaba’s Hema stores, which have become a pillar of high-tech brick-and-mortar along with concepts such as Amazon Go.

After my excitement died down from the idea of a fully connected store, I did take some time to think about the privacy aspect of the model. Would I really like to walk into a store and have all of the employees know that I was buying my third pint of ice cream that week? I don’t think so, although I know that type of information is collected at some retailers in a less obvious way. Would I want a manager coming over to ask why I was spending so much time staring at the Sauvignon Blanc and have to explain to them that I was looking for the cheapest one that doesn’t taste like Franzia? Probably not, and I even tend to avoid clothing and beauty stores that are known for having particularly pestering staff. However, the report points out that convenience continues to beat out price in importance for customers, and someone who is in a hurry (and makes healthy, non-embarrassing food choices) may love the concept.

An additional concern that arises is the loss of jobs that may be a consequence of a digitized, automated store concept. It remains to be seen how this budding concept will really affect jobs, but retailers such as Walmart Inc., which recently expanded its fleet of robots meant to perform mundane tasks, has stressed that these efforts only free up staff to spend more time helping customers. Additionally, Sam’s Club calls the employees at its innovation center who assist customers and manage checkout (which is done by scanning a barcode on the customer’s phone) its Member Hosts, which company officials said can be thought of as “concierges.”

In fact, the Coca-Cola/Kantar report states that “in the store of the future, the manager will still be analytical and decisive, managing a complex environment, but her responsibilities will stretch across the company, the store, and any shoppers seeking assistance.”

Two other ideas mentioned in the report stood out to me, and may be a little bit closer to fruition than the store depicted in the video.

The first was a digital environment that utilizes all blank space in the areas including the floor, walls and ceiling of the grocery store. These areas would be able to change color and lighting to set varying moods depending on need and nearby activity. Additionally, these fixtures could create “living environments” such as “a floral department in a rainforest, a fish counter underwater, a frozen food aisle with a floor that looks and feels like ice-skating,” the report said.

The other was a motion detection-driven system that could stream media on a billboard across the set. As a shopper moves closer to the section, the system narrows down its display to highlight and identify certain products, with prices popping up as the shopper draws even nearer. Based on how the shopper moves and interacts with the products, product specs with be displayed and inventory information will be automatically communicated to store staff. With electronic shelf labels already gaining traction, it doesn't seem too far fetched.

With technology developing at such a rapid rate, it can be difficult for retailers to know where to start. And, as the report puts it, "unsustainable fads can be even more expensive for corporations than categories, and can distract retailing 'energy' from the core mission." However, the report also offers some reasonable advice: "The store of the future needs to be practical in discussion and planning, not merely an abstract vision statement."

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