The latest innovation in grocery store technology – one intended to make it easier for customers to pay and reduce face-to-face contact amid the continuing pandemic – recently debuted at a store outside of Boise, Idaho.
Albertsons Companies tests grocery carts equipped with cameras, sensors and a scale to scan groceries, including cans, cans, meat and produce, while customers purchase and place items in their carts.
The test takes place at a store in the suburb of Eagle, a few miles west of Boise. Albertsons, the country’s second-largest grocery chain, will spend several months evaluating the system and evaluating customer feedback to determine whether it wants to roll out the carts to its 2,278 stores across the country.
Shariq Siddiqui, co-founder and CEO of Redmond, Wash., The startup Veeve, which supplied the carts, predicts demand will be strong. He imagines a day when grocery stores will provide controllers with tablet computers that can monitor cart activity and move controllers behind checkouts so they can interact directly with customers while they shop.
“The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive,” Siddiqui said over the phone. “People love the idea of being in control, and during the pandemic the demand for contactless shopping has just skyrocketed.”
Customers seem to like it too.
“I think this is a really good option, and more and more we want to skip the line at the checkout,” said Jennifer DeWitt, Eagle resident, after taking a ride with one of the five specially designed trolleys. “Even the self-service checkout lane is overcrowded. So I hope this will be a good solution.
Before DeWitt walked into the store, she hadn’t heard of smart carts. A Veeve employee, who supplied Albertsons with five of her strollers, explained how it worked and asked if she wanted to check.
“He was nice and offered it up, so I thought I was going to give it a try,” DeWitt said.
Albertsons declined to comment, saying he is still evaluating the carts.
Cameras and sensors keep track of purchases
A touchscreen sits at the top of the cart where a child can sit in a traditional grocery cart. The customer enters their phone number, linked to an Albertsons loyalty card, and scans each item on a barcode reader on the back of the touchscreen. The items are then placed in a bag in the cart.
For products such as orange, kiwi, or celery, the barcode sticker is scanned and the item placed in the shopping cart. The integrated scale calculates the weight difference in the load and charges the correct price. For customers who change their mind, a second scan of the product removes it from the basket, and it can be put back on the shelf.
Even beer and wine can be purchased with the carts. A store employee must verify that the customer is at least 21 years old, the legal age to purchase alcohol.
When they’re ready to pay, the touchscreen program takes discounts in store and on phone apps into account and totals the order. The customer swipes a card reader with a debit or credit card. The screen then asks the customer for an email address if they want a receipt.
Ultimately, the cart’s cameras and sensors will eliminate the need to scan every item, Siddiqui said. The products will be automatically recognized and called.
“People really love being able to scan their items, skip the lines, come straight to us and pay when they’re done,” said Brady Tomlinson, Veeve Deployment Strategist, stationed at the Albertsons store. “And they grab their bag and leave.”
Veeve was founded in 2018 by Siddiqui and Umer Sadiq, who brought nearly two decades of combined experience from Amazon. A year later, Veeve introduced his cart, dubbed Gen-1, a “cheesy name,” Siddiqui said.
Veeve is also conducting a test market for Safeway in the town of Pleasanton in Northern California, where the headquarters of the Albertsons-owned company is located.
Veeve is one of the many companies pushing shopping cart technology. Last year, Amazon launched its Smart Cart in Amazon Fresh stores. Another company, Caper, bought last month by Instacart, has a pilot program with Kroger, owner of the Fred Meyer stores, for his KroGO cart which also uses artificial intelligence.
Interest in Veeve’s shopping carts is high, said Siddiqui, whose company is located two minutes from the Microsoft campus. This includes big chains such as Albertsons, smaller chains and even neighborhood grocery stores, he said.
“With Seattle being our backyard, we’re definitely testing here with a retailer,” he said. “We’re also in California, we’re in a few places in Ohio, Cincinnati and Loveland. We are in Indiana. We are in Idaho.
Artificial intelligence shopping carts are the latest technology
Smart carts are just the latest cashier innovation to grocery stores since the 1970s. Prior to that, store workers marked prices on products using ink pads on cans and paper stickers. on boxes and other packaging. Purchases were recorded manually by the controllers at the cash registers.
The first controller scanner, built by RCA, was introduced in 1967 at a Kroger store in Cincinnati, home to the headquarters of the nation’s largest grocer. Instead of today’s familiar black-and-white universal product code bars, Kroger scanners read a code right on the spot.
The first UPC reader, developed by Spectra Physics, then an Eugene, Oregon, and NCR company, was unveiled at a Marsh supermarket in Troy, Ohio, in 1974. The machines read barcodes on packages – technology developed in 1949 but was not adopted by the grocery industry until decades later.
Supermarket scanners did not become widespread until the early 1980s. WinCo, a regional chain based in Boise with stores throughout the West, was an early adopter of the Spectra Physics scanner and expanded its use.
Self-service checkouts were developed in the early 1990s, but they didn’t catch on initially. Retailers liked them because they could reduce staff and relieve long queues. Customers, who felt they were paying for customer service, didn’t like the idea of a small staff and didn’t find self-service more convenient.
After initially embracing self-checkout, Albertsons backtracked in 2011 and removed them from many of its stores. Even after its purchase of Safeway in 2014, which switched to automatic tills, Albertsons only kept them in a few of its own stores. It was not until 2019 that Albertsons reinstated automatic checkouts in its stores.
Seventeen years ago, Albertsons hand scanners tested that Dallas customers could take with them when shopping, calling their purchases and loading them into their shopping cart. The company had planned to deploy the technology in other markets, but it never succeeded.
In 2018, Walmart gave customers at select stores a portable scanner that allowed them to scan groceries while they were shopping. They paid for their items at a self-service check counter. Later, the company, headquartered in Bentonville, Arkansas, introduced a phone app that allows customers to to scan and pay for purchases with your mobile phone.