I just watched the future of supermarket shopping and I may run to the hills

Is this really what customers want? Well, it's what retailers want, apparently.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer
Security camera closeup


Witthaya Prasongsin/Getty Images

If there's one thing I know about the future, it's that it never looks how I think it will.

Look even six months ahead, and the world has a way of twisting itself to bring you surprises -- some of the most unwelcome kind.

And you don't really have much of a choice about it, do you? The future happens and you have to adjust.

Recently, I've been wondering what going to my local store will look like in the glorious future created by tech companies.

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Somehow, my resistance to self-checkout has made me wonder what else might suddenly change. Or even disappear.

Sophisticated shopping. That's what we need

Helpfully, a company called Sensei brought my fearful imagination closer to what may ultimately be the reality.

Sensei claims to be "the leading European provider of autonomous store technology," and who am I to argue?

"What does autonomous store technology truly involve, though?" I sense you wondering. 

Please walk with me, then, and meet Dojo. This, insists Sensei modestly, is "the most sophisticated autonomous retail environment in the world."

The thing about sophistication is that not everyone can quite agree on what it entails. For some, it's folding their little finger when they hold a teacup. For others, it's being seen at the right place at the right time at the right table, far away from the restroom. 

Some might wonder, too, whether supermarket shopping should ever really be sophisticated, as opposed to say, blessedly utilitarian.

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But here's Sensei's version of the sophisticated retail experience.

Naturally, the first thing the company wants you to know is that this is a "friction-free shopping experience." I'm not sure about your psyche, but mine tends to believe a shopping experience is when no one gets in my way and there's no line to the cashier.

Perhaps, though, I'm not sufficiently sophisticated.

In Sensei's Dojo, every product is automatically tracked, whether it's on shelves or in fridges.

There's an automatic card payment terminal, too. But you'd expect that, wouldn't you? How about purchases displayed in real time? Does that sort of sophistication make you want to wear your best Prada jacket before you go to the store?

Well, how about being able to shop without an app? Can you imagine it? Actually, shopping without an app? Yes, like in 1954.

The big sophisticate is watching you

Naturally, there's plenty of sophisticated security. You're monitored by cameras at all times. "All spectrums covered," says Sensei.

And goodness, this technology works in stores of up to 1,500 square meters. That's more than 16,000 square feet.

But let's focus on the benefits. Customers, according to Sensei, save time. How about retailers? For them, Sensei says, there are the twin glories of efficiency and control.

Perhaps. But doesn't all this sound like one of those enormous Amazon Go stores? And those haven't been a startling success.

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The problem so often encountered when technology makes things better is that it takes the very soul out of the experience. I can't help but think this is what the Dojo does, cloaked in its claim of sophistication.

What use is it showing off how clever you are, if all you end up doing is making humans feel a little colder inside?

Oh, but please don't think there'll be no human employees in this sophisticated superstore. Sensei says that one of the other great features here will be "the automated tracking of products served from assisted counters, such as a bakery, butchery or fish counter, and the integration of self service coffee and juice machines."

The future will be chill(ed)

Please imagine the future life of someone turning up at the supermarket to do their shift in the bakery. All around them, everything will be automated. Fewer employees will surely be needed -- that's always part of the efficiency mantra.

Who are these lonely bakery workers going to gossip with? Surely not the customers. They'll be desperate to gain a few seconds on their precious day.

I saved one little nugget for last. Sensei is working with HPE to enact these temples of sophistication. HPE's SVP and GM of Service Providers, OEMs, and Major Accounts, Phil Cutrone offered these observations: "Sensei is transforming retail with cutting-edge AI to deliver a seamless shopping experience while optimizing operations. We are pleased to play a strategic role in enabling Sensei's Dojo by using HPE ProLiant servers that provide an ideal foundation for critical workloads, such as powering next-generation innovations in AI and machine learning, as a result of the platforms' high-performance, security, and reliability."

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Did you hear anything about human beings in there?

No, neither did I.

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