Tracing the digital transformation of grocery stores

As the world traverses a slow path to recovery, how we purchase food and staple goods may never look quite the same.

By Henry Giardina

In less than a year, the American grocery store has gone from an age-old, in-person shopping institution to a destination at the forefront of a technological transformation.

Grocery giant Kroger, for instance, covered 98 percent of households in its delivery areas in 2020 by investing in a large digital and delivery presence. Furthermore, according to a recent global study, over 50 percent of respondents are not planning to re-integrate in-store shopping into their routine for “a long time”—underlining the need for innovative solutions.

As the world traverses a slow path to recovery amid COVID-19, how we purchase food and staple goods may never look quite the same, thanks to new technologies and consumer habits.

The technology timeline

Though automats and self-service technologies have existed since the 1930s, the first proper self-checkout platform was introduced in 1992 by Dr. Howard Schneider, who named his invention the “self-service robot.” This cashier-less checkout innovation made way for the self-checkout kiosks of the early 2000s, popularized by airports and fast-food restaurants for their user-friendly interface and touch screens.

Photo by Joshua Rawson Harris on Unsplash

The next major innovation came from in-app purchases and loyalty programs like the kinds Starbucks popularized in the early-2010s. After a long moment of trying to make QR codes happen, businesses discovered that giving customers more control over their experience in the form of pick-up and delivery orders was a step in the right direction. From there, we arrived at the golden age of delivery apps.

In 2019, Kroger announced plans to use Caper, an AI-enabled smart cart; and a year later, in late 2020, Amazon debuted the Dash Cart, a similar technology that uses sensors and scales to automatically price and weigh products. But long before both these innovations, the Concierge Smart Cart hit the market in 2010, a product of the Toronto-based company Mercatus.

When the pandemic arrived in early 2020, grocery stores could choose to amp

Photo by Marjan Blan on Unsplash

up their delivery presence by using third-party tools like Instacart, whose order volume climbed 150 percent during the first month of lockdown; strengthen their in-house delivery and pick-up order capabilities; or focus on hiring more staff and investing in core stock units, such as paper goods and pantry items. Meanwhile, Amazon began to sell its “just-walk-out” technology to other stores as AI-powered services like Caper and Mashgin partnered with competing retailers across the country, such as Key Food and CTown.

The supermarket of the future

As the initial pandemic pressure on grocery stores has subsided alongside gathering restrictions, Bill Bishop, chief architect of the grocery industry resource and reporting site Brick Meets Click, believes the U.S. will start taking cues from competitors in China.

[There is a] race to optimize efficient checkout.

—Bill Bishop, chief architect of Brick Meets Click

“E-commerce is basically blocking and tackling,” Bishop says. “You’ve got your customer interface for ordering and shopping, and then you’ve got your fulfillment. What we’re seeing [in China] already is the next generation of e-commerce platforms that provide a customer-centric service.”

Photo by Lucrezia Carnelos on Unsplash

Bishop points to the Xiao G delivery cart—now a part of Alibaba, an Asian retailer known as the “Amazon of China”—which uses 360-degree sensors to whip through traffic and arrive, driverless, at its destination. Alibaba has even started creating ready-to-eat meals that can be eaten in-store or shipped out the same day using the sensor cart.

Meanwhile, for brick-and-mortar stores looking to eliminate crowded aisles and lines, Bishop says “[there is a] race to optimize efficient checkout.”

“We’re at a really good place to take advantage of the scars the pandemic has left behind,” says Jack Hogan, CEO of Masghin, which is trying to pioneer totally touchless, checkout technology. “We feel that a frictionless solution would be great, but it’s not possible to do without scales and shelf sensors.” Hogan is working with two computer vision experts on a solve: “We’ve tested solutions and our theory is that it’s going to take a few more years before this comes into play successfully.”

We’re at a really good place to take advantage of the scars the pandemic has left behind.

—Jack Hogan, CEO of Masghin

The true future of shopping, however, might have less to do with cameras and sensors and more to do with biometrics. Palm signature technology, facial recognition, and data collection may prove to be the next wave of grocery technology. “Biometrics is certainly going to penetrate the payment scheme,” Bishop says. Methods of obtaining intimate shopper data will be integral to the next generation of apps and services that seek to tie health, ease, and safety to the in-store shopping experience.

Still, Hogan feels changes must occur in due time. “There needs to be a set of lily pads in place as we jump towards a completely frictionless [process],” he explains. “My 87-year-old grandmother understands how to stand in line and pay with a credit card. And she understands that commerce takes place at the counter.”

Lead photo by Raul Gonzalez Escobar on Unsplash