The Giant Eagle supermarket chain has made one of its stores a checkout-free shopping experience. A variety of Missouri Price Chopper shops offer customers access to an application that can scan products and measure their order, enabling them to bypass the checkout line at grocery stores. Even before the pandemic, Wegmans implemented a self-checkout application at three locations, but this spring it expanded out to 80 of its 103 locations, as shoppers sought contactless buying.

The dramatic transition since the pandemic to online food buying has brought in the next era of shopping for groceries. Yet supermarkets, too, invest in technology targeted for supermarkets. Within brick-and – mortar stores, where the majority of customers already shop, they are introducing revolutionary technologies. Also the new loyalty program of Walmart, Walmart+, will have access to a tech-based advantage: a mobile app that helps shoppers to bypass the line at stores.

According to McKinsey & Company, about 98 per cent of United States grocery sales were in supermarkets until the pandemic. Although with the increases in curbside collection and home delivery, at the height of Covid-19, 85 percent of sales were already in stores, the company found.

Most traditional supermarkets have held back from rolling out flashy technologies or promoting it. In a historically low-margin company, investments may be difficult to justify, particularly when it is unknown whether clients are going to download mobile apps or adopt innovation.

us food retail market share

Nevertheless, tech-based solutions that encourage protection and speed are now table stakes for supermarkets with the Covid-19 pandemic. Clients of all ages are much more likely to download applications than ever, check out programs such as curbside delivery, and discover ways to prevent interactions with store clerks or other clients.

Legacy supermarkets were forced in that direction well before the pandemic by a comparatively major competitor: Amazon. Amazon, known for its supremacy in e-commerce, was a smaller competitor in the food market. As per UBS statistics, it owns Whole Foods and is the 9th largest U.S. supermarket with 2.2 percent of the market share in 2019.

With about 21 percent of the market share last year, Walmart is the biggest. It is followed by Kroger, who had about 10%.

But Amazon, also as a lesser player, had been an ambitious one. It has quickly increased its physical supermarket presence to include thousands of cashier-free Amazon Go stores, a new network of Amazon Fresh supermarkets and hundreds of Whole Foods outlets. The forms in which customers buy, pay for and collect their groceries are shaken up. During the pandemic, the company launched the first “dark store” for Whole Foods to easily select and pack online purchases. It has a program called Amazon Fresh Pickup that delivers grocery to shoppers’ vehicles. And also most lately, it has rolled out intelligent shopping carts, dubbed Dash Carts that monitor the order of a customer automatically.

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Amazon aims to delight clients with creative grocery concepts and eliminate common issues in their shopping process, and eventually win more sales.

However, Sucharita Kodali, Forrester’s retail analyst, says legacy supermarkets have good reason to refuse to make such investments. She says some of them raise the retailer’s long-term expenses and generate further jobs. That pushes their income down.

That’s why she’s suspicious about other grocers that would immediately rip off any addition from Amazon, including its smart shopping carts.

“First, they must see the Return on investment,” she says. “It will only be for the Joneses to keep up.”

The shifting preferences of customers during the Covid-19 pandemic gave grocery stores another excuse to innovate and, in certain instances, take a leaf from the playbook of the tech giant.

While foot traffic has raised again at supermarkets, many shoppers agree that safety is still very much a top priority. In June, market research company Ipsos surveyed 2,000 buyers and found 62% of them will stop buying at a store that doesn’t take safety and health seriously.

There is an accelerated market for technology which can allow shoppers to comfortably shop in stores and reduce interactions with workers or other customers.

Avoiding the queue for checkout

Giant Eagle was established in 1931, but the Pittsburgh-based private retailer has maintained an eye on creativity, CEO Laura Karet says. She said the company monitored trends in Asia and Europe, where online grocery shopping and contactless payments have been adopted faster by grocery shoppers.

That inspired a contract with Grabango, a start-up located in California that has reconfigured one of GetGo’s Giant Eagle grocery stores. The shops are 6,000 square feet on average. Shoppers will stroll into the shop beginning this month, pick out snacks or top up a drink and leave without the need to check out.

GiantEagle grocery app
Giant Eagle recently partnered with cashierless checkout start-up Grabango to launch its technology in one of its GetGo convenience stores.
Giant Eagle

The hardware in the retrofit shop is close to that of Amazon Go. Customers download an application where payment details are inserted. They will get a QR-code in store to scan.

“To get in or out easily is what users want,” she says. “It is all about speed. And before Covid, we continually asked ourselves to say, ‘How do we bring customers in and out of shops more efficiently?

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The pandemic, she says, “has certainly brought another slant to it” so waiting in line is now perceived as a health threat, not only an inconvenience.

Although Giant Eagle was preparing to partner with Grabango in the run-up to the pandemic, Karet said it made technology simpler to sell. She recently shopped at a checkout-free shop herself.

“At least 6 customers interrupted me asking, ‘What are you really doing?” She says. ”I explained that to them, and they was like ‘Oh my Goodness. That’s the funniest thing to do!

Giant Eagle plans to upgrade the second store during the next 6 to 12 months — and might add the tech to more than 470 locations, based on how clients react.

This has significantly increased the consumer adoption potential, Karet said.

Selling technology to supermarkets

Both former Amazon executives, Shariq Siddiqui and Umer Sadiq, focus on a vision where smart shopping carts are turned into tablestakes. They co-founded Veeve, which last year launched its smart cart for groceries.

In order to log in, customers check a QR code. The cart is fitted with cameras and sensors which recognize items automatically when they are put inside. It calculates the order’s cost and charges customers on their way out from the store, removing the need to wait in line.

grocery veeve smart cart
Veeve’s smart shopping cart uses a combination of sensors and cameras to automatically identify products as they’re placed inside.

In Seattle and North Carolina, Veeve is now evaluating its smart carts with supermarkets. However the pandemic, and also the July introduction of Amazon’s Dash Cart, has ignited a surge of fresh interest from local grocery stores and even some of the country’s biggest retailers.

The principle of using smart carts in supermarkets has been ‘validated’ by both cases, Siddiqui says. “We would say it was too nice to be real if we were going to pitch to retailers, but we’ve realized these will work for several years now,” he added.

Standard Cognition, a digital payment technology start-up, is getting so much interest from merchants that CEO Jordan Fisher says he had to reject prospective buyers.

Instead of constructing a modern store on cashier-free technology, Standard Cognition is retrofitting current retail stores with ceiling-mounted cameras. These cameras are fitted with machine learning and AI which detects what is picked up and placed back on the shelf by each shopper.

Fisher says, “We will not have to modify the racks, we don’t have to install gates.” “It’s the same shop, except now there is checkout-free technology that helps shoppers to step in and avoid the line.”

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Standard said that it would introduce its cashless system to a Phoenix grocery store in Circle K this month. Fisher says the company expects to announce new distribution partners soon.

Will Hogben, CEO of FutureProof Retail, which develops mobile checkout apps, said the start-up has received inquiries from customers who want to implement the application in their stores months ahead of schedule.

grocery shopping app scan
FutureProof Retail sells its mobile checkout software to retailers, which allows shoppers to skip the checkout line by scanning and bagging their items in the store.
FutureProof Retail

“It can also be two years until we speak to the company until they plan to start a pilot,” Hogben said. What happens to us is that throughout Covid, all the individuals we spoke to kind of came back and asked,’ How easily will it be integrated?

FutureProof’s platform is currently being used in 3 locations owned by McKeever’s Kansas-based supermarket chain and 9 Price Chopper outlets in Missouri. New York City supermarkets Westside Market and Fairway Market have both implemented FutureProof’s smartphone checkout app, and in-store GPS mapping apps developed by Quest in Real Life.

The SIRL in-store GPS device helps shoppers to search in the app where the products are stored. It then provides the shoppers step-by – step instructions to the position of the products, to minimize the time wasted walking around the hallways and to restrict interaction with the store staff — both significant advantages in the light of the safety issues of coronavirus.

Fairway and Westside Market were deploying smartphone checkout and GPS technology in the run-up to the pandemic, but customers began using the apps more early in March. Hogben says, “The adoption went from about 10 percent to 15 percent to 30 percent of customers passing through the system.”

SIRL Wayfinder
Westside Market offers shoppers access to in-store GPS technology created by Search in Real Life, which gives them step-by-step directions to products in the store.

Hogben says he saw firsthand how technology could alleviate some of the fears around shopping for groceries during a pandemic. In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, he watched a store cashier handle items “one after the other.”

“Things like production, things that go straight into your mouth,” Hogben said. “It can be hard to watch individuals handle it when you’re cautious.”

The additional effort of installing a smartphone app may have discouraged customers from using the technologies of FutureProof prior to the pandemic. But now Hogben notices that most customers are going through trouble just to remain healthy.

“It’s already tough to go shopping with Covid,” he said. “You’ve got to worry about the mask, the time of the day, the supermarket. And I’m hoping the adoption is here to stay.


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