The Go stores use a mix of next-gen technology, with computer vision at the forefront, to track customer movement in the store (thanks to hundreds of camera strategically placed throughout) and recognize when a product is selected and charge the customer’s account when they exit the store.
"The majority of sensing is from above," the Chicago Tribune reports Dilip Kumar, vice president of technology for Amazon Go, said when the retailer opened its Chicago location. "Cameras figure out which interactions you have with the shelves. Computer vision figures out which items are taken. Machine-learning algorithms also determine which item it is."
To Amazon, scan and go stores represent more than just a science experiment; the retailer is on the record with its plan to open thousands of these stores over the next few years. And they are not alone.
Retailers across the industry are looking to get in on the act as they focus on building stores of the future focused on a frictionless, seamless customer experience. Sam’s Club for example went live with a new store late last year in Dallas, TX, dubbed Sam’s Club Now. The test lab store will be a mobile-first shopping experience powered by the new Sam’s Club Now app, allowing customers a cashierless, grab and go experience.
“We’re putting Sam’s Club on the cutting edge of innovation in the warehouse channel,” said Jamie Iannone, CEO, SamsClub.com and EVP of membership and technology. “Using all available technologies ― including computer vision, AR, machine learning, artificial intelligence, robotics, just to name a few ― we will redefine the retail experience today and into the future.”
While deep-pocketed industry disruptors like Amazon and Walmart are leading the way with computer vision powered grab and go stores, most of the industry is in wait and see mode. Just 7% of retailers have up-to-date grab and go technology in place today, according to RIS’ “29th Annual Retail Technology Study: Retail Accelerates.” But another 15% are either in the midst of a deployment or will start one in the next 12 months, indicating an eagerness among retail’s adventurous to bring the experience to market before the competition.
Inventory and Compliance
While exciting computer vision use cases like grab and go stores and visual search have the potential to make an immediate splash on the customer experience, other less sexy applications of the technology could potentially have the greatest long-term impact.
Retailers devote untold hours ensuring their inventory is accurate and up-to-date and stores are in compliance with safety and merchandising standards. Much of this work is done manually at the store level, with associates and managers tasked with constantly monitoring and scanning the store to ensure accurately and compliance. This outdated operational approach costs retailers thousands of man-hours every year, man-hours that could be reallocated to providing a differentiated customer experience.
Savvy retailers are turning to robotics powered by computer vision technology to take over mundane store monitoring tasks. By deploying robots at the store level tasked with scanning shelves for both inventory and product compliance retailers can not only free up associates for customer-facing tasks, but they can greatly improve inventory accuracy.
Online retailer eBay has been an early adopter of the tech. Its latest feature couples computer vision with relevant filters to allow shoppers to tap on a product listing to explore similar items. When shoppers open the eBay app, they can then tap on the three dots next to an item they would like to explore. This pulls up a screen for a number of options including the “looks like this” feature. Back in 2017 the company announced its Image Search function, which allows shoppers to share a photo into the eBay search bar to discover listings that match the item in the photo.
Omnichannel retailer Home Depot launched its visual search function in 2016, adding it in beta mode to its mobile app. Today consumers simply snap a picture of a product they are interested in and the solution instantly searches Home Depot’s extensive product catalog for that exact product and/or similar products. Typically, shoppers use the visual search function in one of two ways: to locate a product they are interested in, or to find complementary items to a product.
While some retailers are just getting their feet wet with the technology, some are already seeing the benefits. Forever 21’s AI-powered visual search and navigation feature debuted as “Discover Your Style” in the Forever 21 iOS app last May and was initially available for the dresses and tops categories. In the first month after launching the feature, the apparel retailer saw an increase in sales conversions and a 20% increase in average purchase value for the two test categories. This initial success led Forever 21 executives to fast-track the large-scale web integration of the technology, which uses AI, computer vision and natural language processing to provide shoppers with more relevant search results.
As retailers search for solutions to blur the lines between physical and digital retail, computer vision fits the bill. In addition, whether it’s in self-driving vehicles making deliveries, robots taking inventories, AI-driven security scans, or robots frying up tater tots to help humans avoid hot oil injuries, computer vision is an essential part of digitizing the retail workforce as well.
Privacy is bound to be a heated topic of discussion around implementing many of these futuristic solutions, but regardless, this is one next-gen tech retailers should be thinking about now as retail can reinvent itself in the blink of an eye.