Retail -- and grocery in particular -- is a tough business. Grocers operate on razor-thin margins, and they're up against commercial giants like Amazon and Walmart. Increasingly, major grocery chains are turning to AI, edge computing and other innovative technologies to help them bring down costs.
But along with Giant Eagle, Whole Foods and other big names in the industry, one small startup in the Atlanta area is betting that a tech-first approach to grocery shopping will help them expand their business across the US. Nourish & Bloom was founded by Jilea and Jamie Hemmings, a husband-and-wife duo with a background in tech and the food industry. They opened their first store in Fayetteville, Georgia, earlier this year, delivering a "frictionless" shopping experience with a contactless checkout system powered by computer vision, as well as delivery robots that bring orders to nearby customers.
"Wanted to show what the future of grocery could look like," Jilea Hemmings said to ZDNet. "We really feel that we have differentiated ourselves in that our model is very different."
Nourish & Bloom's contactless checkout system resembles Amazon's "just walk out" technology: customers use an app to check into the store, pick up what they want and receive an e-receipt when they leave. Customers have the option to use a more traditional scanner if they prefer. Meanwhile, the store's two delivery robots -- named Nourish and Bloom -- can take hot and cold orders to customers up to three miles away. When a robot reaches its destination, the customer reads out their order number in order to open up the robot's belly, where their order is stored.
The brand, however, isn't just using technology to stand out. The Hemmings is also selling what they describe as a "warm, pantry feeling" in their store -- a familiar-feeling environment that sells locally sourced, healthy food.
Nourish & Bloom also intends to use its proprietary algorithms to learn about store customers. This can help the brand offer a more customer-driven experience, Jilea said, and offer valuable insight to the brands on its shelves.
While they have just one store now, the Hemmings want to gain a foothold across the Southern US and then expand nationally. Ultimately, they want to open 1,000 stores in 10 years.
While their first store has only been open a few months, they've already made major changes to the way their technology operates, Jamie Hemmings said.
"We built a small test lab, and we ran so many different scenarios," he said. "When we opened on January 21, all of it almost went out the window. You really don't know how it will go until you get truly live testing of the products."
Nourish & Bloom worked with Intel and UST, a transformation solutions company, to implement their tech platforms. At the Intel Vision event this week, the chipmaker is showcasing the way the store is using Intel RealSense cameras, VPUs and other processors, and Intel edge technologies to make the "frictionless" shopping experience work.
"They're using our CPUs, GPUs and VPUs, which you're not going to be able to do with other partners," Alec Gefrides, Intel's VP of Network and Edge and GM of IOT, said to ZDNet. "We have compute engines dedicated for whatever you're trying to do. One of the advantages of Intel is we play in all of those fields."
Now more than ever, there's a strong case for retailers to adopt the kinds of technologies at work in Nourish & Bloom, as market forces compel retailers to look for more cost savings.
"Right now, we have a shortage in manpower, so where can technology fill that gap... that's where a retailer would want to engage," Gefrides explained.