Robot store concepts proliferate during pandemic

No contact, autonomous checkout is rolling out worldwide as consumers cede need for in-person service.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

The pandemic has accelerated the spread of autonomous checkout as developers rush to take advantage of a market need. In 2021, expect even some local stores to begin adopting the technology, which forgoes the cashier and checkout process entirely in favor of a seamless grab-and-go shopping experience.

The latest example comes in the form of 20 autonomous convenience stores rolling out in Q1 of this year. The news is a result of AiFi, a company creating frictionless autonomous shopping experiences powered by AI, partnering with Wundermart, a company that creates unmanned, data-driven retail marketplaces.

"The pandemic has caused everything in our lives to shift, including how we shop. This shift made innovation a requirement, which is why we are pleased to partner with Wundermart to make its unmanned marketplaces entirely contactless," says Steve Gu, co-founder and CEO of AiFi. "Our computer vision technology enhances Wundermart's convenient in-store experience and enables shoppers to continue on with their everyday lives in a safe and efficient manner."

The AiFi-Wundermart partnership is part of a growing number of autonomous checkout models sprouting up in various corners of the globe. I've previously written about Standard, which is bringing autonomous checkout to college campuses with an emphasis on retrofitting existing retail concepts. There have also been novel checkout technologies that utilize an AI-powered shopping cart to clock which items customers are nabbing. Caper, creators of one such cart, recently expanded its product line of autonomous retail technology with something called Caper Counter, a cashierless countertop designed for mini marts under ten thousand feet. The technology provides autonomous checkout to keep customers and employees safe and minimize human interaction while shopping, and, crucially, it's completely plug-and-play, meaning it's not difficult to deploy in existing spaces.

Renewed emphasis on sanitation during COVID-19 lockdowns, which comes from both consumers and workers, has hastened development and adoption of contactless checkout options. Data from a consumer research firm called Shekel, for example, shows that 87% of consumers want touchless checkout options

AiFi's solution is attractive in that it relies on a camera-only approach, making it cost-effective to implement and speedy to deploy in existing retail environments. As part of the partnership, Wundermart will implement AiFi's OASIS to track automatic shop replenishments from suppliers, which will enhance performance and data integrity. Customers will have the choice to scan their store app or credit card at a kiosk before or after shopping. As customers grab items, there's no need for additional scanning.

"AiFi's technology helps us create a delightful, convenient and safe shopping experience for our shoppers. They can simply scan in, select what items they want to purchase, and walk out," says Laurens de Kleine, co-founder of Wundermart. "The system will also be used to improve accuracy of automated restocking, one of the many functions in our total solution for autonomous retail. AiFi has pioneered and become the global leader in computer vision technology. This partnership will bring us closer to our mission to transform the future of retail." 

The system also comes with the upshot of creating a rich stream of insights germane to consumer behavior and item performance. Those insights can help brick-and-mortar retailers compete with data-driven digital retailers more effectively.

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