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Checkout-free retail is the talk of the town. Ever since Amazon Go burst onto the scene in early 2018, the heat index on the topic has steadily risen. Frankly, there is so much noise out there, it can be difficult to know what to make of it all.

On the one hand, you have a bunch of startups with cool sounding names vying for airtime, and, on the other, you have well-established companies enthusiastically rushing to experiment with the concept. Moreover, scroll through LinkedIn on just about any day of the week, and you will find that dismissing the technology appears to be an old-line retail curmudgeon’s greatest delight.

But there is no denying it. You can mark it down now. Checkout-free retail is coming.

As Anil Aggarwal, CEO of the upcoming Groceryshop conference, is fond of saying, “It’s human nature to overestimate the change that should happen in the short-term and to underestimate the change that will happen in the long-term.” Or, said another way, now is not the time to put technologies down or to get overly excited about them either, but to chart a course of pragmatism.

We are only at the start of the innovation curve related to checkout-free retail.

So, it is time to set the record straight. It is time to put aside the myths propagated by both those that fear change and those that want it to happen too quickly. It is time to bust the myths that do nothing but hold back rationale progress when it comes to checkout-free retail.

The five myths that absolutely need busting are:

Myth #1 – Checkout-Free Technology Only Works in Small Retail Footprints

“Checkout-free technology will never work at a larger scale,” is a favorite saying of detractors, but one that is also not helped by some of the overzealous enthusiasts for the space either. What the detractors and the enthusiasts both forget sometimes is that Amazon Go and its small footprint, roughly 1,500 to 3,000 square feet, acts as a cognitive flag in the ground for the industry’s perception of how the technology can and should work.

While Amazon deserves a ton of credit, we must not forget that Amazon was simply the first to homestead the frontier. How the land gets developed over time is still very much up for grabs.

Seeing the energy around Amazon Go, many startups have rushed to claim whatever slices of the checkout-free frontier they can, whether with standalone small, convenience-style boxes or even their own branded versions of micro-stores with funny sounding names. All of which define retail experiences by the current limitations of checkout-free technology itself, instead of asking how they can take what they know of the technology and adapt it to accommodate larger-sized operations, with fail-safe redundancies and high reliability.

The amazing irony is, that as we examine the next myth, we discover many of the tools required to accommodate checkout-free retail at scale are already built into existing retail operations.

Myth #2 – All Checkout-Free Retail Acts and Works Like Amazon Go

This myth is the most important myth to bust of all. It is what frees our minds to think about checkout-free technology in both larger sized boxes, as well as in entirely new retail frameworks.

The real world is nuanced. Retailers don’t have to choose between checkout-free or not checkout-free, as defined by Amazon Go. The whole relationship is a false dichotomy. Hybrid automated checkout solutions exist and can be just as effective, if not more so, in the long-run and across a wider degree of use cases.

Why?

Photo Source: Getty Images

Because hybrid automated solutions (like those shown above) are congruent with the principles of experience design and work inside of the shopping experiences that people already know. People are creatures of habit, so systems that allow people to opt-into experiences vs. forcing them into experiences they have never before seen are easier on the mind.

For example, there is still much to like about a grocery shopping experience – the smells, the discovery of new products, and even the convenience grocery stores offer for larger sized trips.

But, unfortunately, Amazon Go-style checkout-free systems limit the shopping experience when it comes to these factors. They not only limit the browse and discovery aspects of grocery shopping, but they also introduce friction when it comes to how easily people can get their larger sized baskets home with them. Checking out in a grocery store is a way to pay, yes, but what is often forgotten is that it is also a way to ensure one’s items are bagged conveniently and efficiently too.  

Hybrid automated checkout solutions like, for instance, Grabango’s Checkout-Ready solution, work differently. They blend automation with human service design according to the needs of the retailer. They allow retailers to lever up what still should be a core differentiator for physical retail experiences – human interaction and service.

Hybrid solutions also give customers the ability to choose how they want to shop as well. Consumers cannot do this with Amazon Go. Everyone has to shop the same way. But, in hybrid solutions, in-store experiences can be tailored to trip type.

For quick trips, people can walk in and walk out, similar to Amazon Go. For larger sized trips that are damn near an impossibility with Amazon Go, they can still walk up to a designated area to bag their products and pay faster than ever before. And, if they just want to indulge in grocery shopping the old-fashioned way, they can do that too.

All this approach takes is a willingness to design an entire experience fresh from the ground up, with these principles in mind, and to look at computer vision-based checkout-free technology not as a limiting factor in how people can shop but as a solution that should work inside of a greater context.

Myth #3 – All Checkout-Free Experiences Require an App Download

The app myth is the myth most often heard at tradeshow cocktail parties. It is the one that always comes from the too-smart-for-his-own-good dude who says, in a high-pitched sarcastic voice, “But consumers don’t want to download another app!”

This point is so moot.

Whether consumers want to download an app or not is immaterial. Again, as we illustrated above, consumers can decide for themselves how they want to shop and what apps they want to download within the right experience design.

Hybrid automated systems are now available that can track customers anonymously through a store and total up their bills at pay stations quickly and efficiently without any barcode scanning required. The customer simply pays with whatever form of tender he or she chooses, including cash. No app is required. It is just a faster checkout and payment process for the customer.

The best part?

Over time the customers who see other people or (even worse) their friends and family just start to walk in, walk out, and bypass traditional payment points in a store, all will eventually download a retailer’s app too.

Why?

Because psychologically they will feel left out and, at that point, the app download won’t even be a hurdle anymore. Line envy, or shopper envy as others call it, will be so pervasive that it might even put a few Baby Boomers on therapists’ couches the world over.

Think I am crazy? Just ask Starbucks how their mobile app downloads are going. It’s the same phenomenon. And, even if I am crazy, the customer still does not have to choose one way of shopping over the other!

It’s a win-win all around.

Regardless, the natural shopping experience remains intact, which means better economics surrounding adoption and implementation, and consumers can still control the degree of privacy within their shopping experience too.

Hybrid automated systems mean 100% adoption right from the get-go for all consumers. Opt-in. Opt-out. It doesn’t matter.

It’s hard not to love that!

Myth #4 – There’s No ROI in Checkout-Free Retail

Myth #4 is the point that always brings out a chuckle as well. For any technology to work, it must have an ROI. It must be deployed at the right cost, with the right degree of reliability in its componentry. It would be asinine to think that checkout-free retail will ever reach scale if these requirements are not met.

But, even with that said, cognitively it is also important to flip the script within the ROI discussion. Retailers shouldn’t be too focused on what checkout-free systems cost. The far more important question is — what can they make from the concept? It is the numerator, not the denominator, that should demand the most attention, i.e. the return, not the cost. Too often, retailers don’t think in these terms though.

The numbers on the return side of the equation are so powerful that it is almost ludicrous that retailers have not been experimenting with checkout-free retail even faster than they are.

Just look at the figures.

Inventory theft alone represents 100 bps of bottom-line profit per year. Then you add in reductions in shrink, streamlined operations, better in stocks for customers, and conservatively the annualized bottom line benefit gets up into the 300 to 400 bps range rather quickly. Even if you come up short of these goals, these are still huge numbers, especially in grocery retailing.

All of which, intentionally too, says nothing of payroll savings either – my fifth and final point.

Myth #5 – Checkout-Free Retail is Cashier-Less Retail

The beauty of a hybrid automated checkout experience approach is that retailers by way of what their consumers demand can decide how cashier-free or how cashier-plenty they want their future retail experiences to be.

If their business models are about low prices, no frills, no service, then sure, those types of operations may not need as many cashiers, but many retailers’ operations and business models are not designed that way. Human interactions are a key piece of many established retail experience designs. What hybrid automated solutions enable is the ability to funnel the savings from the areas mentioned above back into the service design elements of the store. They allow retailers to funnel money back into why people come to a store in the first place – for inspiration, for touch and feel, for help and guidance, and for the sheer social experience of being out in the world with other people. 

No one wants to stand in line, anywhere. Period. But, stopping there is not the point. It comes up short.

Eliminating lines and reducing wait times are important, but the real points of long-run differentiation will be uncovered by the retailers who best expand upon and reinvest in the elements of a physical retail experience that separate it from e-commerce.

Physical retail has and always will be about how the intersection of human, physical, and digital design choices come together within spaces. The beauty of hybrid automated checkout-free experience design is that it allows retailers to dial up or dial down each of these dimensions according to their own business models and to play to their strengths.

The checkout-free pennant race is in early innings, but hybrid design approaches stand out. Hybrid design gives retailers the levers to customize a cocktail of human, physical and digital design elements that fit their brand strategies. And of course, it’s more than just checkout as value is created throughout the shopper journey and at a lower cost. This is the real frontier upon which retailers should stake their claims. The vanquished will be those that seek utilitarian, impersonal physical retail experiences in small footprints with funny names that serve as nothing more than a race to the bottom for anyone not named Amazon.  


About the Author
Chris Walton is a leading expert and influencer in omnichannel retailing. An accomplished Senior Executive, with nearly 20 years of success within the retail and retail technology industries, Chris has high-level executive experience across nearly every discipline within retail. Currently, he is the CEO and Founder of Omni Talk, one of the fastest growing blogs in retail, and Third Haus, a retail technology lab and joint venture with Xenia Retail out of Minneapolis. He is a regular keynote speaker, a contributor for Forbes and the Robin Report, and he also sits on the Advisory Board for Delivery Solutions and Xenia Retail. Prior to starting Red Archer Retail and Omni Talk, Chris worked for Target, where he was the Vice President of the retailer’s Store of the Future project and also the Vice President of Merchandising for Home Furnishings on Target.com. Chris began his career at Gap, Inc. and holds a BA in Economics and History from Stanford University, and an MBA from the Harvard Business School.

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Today, 97% of food shopping in America takes place in brick and mortar grocery stores.  Meanwhile, the leading complaint about grocery store shopping is excessively long lines at checkout.  In fact, the checkout experience has not been successfully updated since the introduction of the barcode reader over forty years ago.  Grabango’s mission is “to eliminate lines and save people time.”  We are honored to be fulfilling our mission and providing even more value with our newly announced retail partner, Giant Eagle Inc.    

Grabango’s platform has been deployed at a Giant Eagle retail location, and together we are optimizing the system in preparation for commercial service.  This partnership represents the first checkout-free technology partnership for a large grocery retailer (Top 20 U.S. Grocer according to Progressive Grocer, May 2019) for existing store locations in the United States.

Giant Eagle is an ideal development partner for multiple reasons.  First, the range of store sizes under one banner (3,000 sq. ft. GetGo convenience stores to Market District supermarkets > 100,000 sq. ft.) makes for an ideal proving ground for Grabango’s enterprise-class technology.  Second, Giant Eagle’s accomplished technology team firmly controls the technology that operates in their 474 retail locations and is capable of rapid deployment throughout the operation. These facts, in combination with both teams’ focus on improving the shopper experience, make Giant Eagle an ideal business partner. 

At the industry level, this announcement is not only an important first but a harbinger of many announcements to come in the retail-tech industry.  True, checkout-free technology eliminates lines at checkout, and it also unlocks a variety of customer-oriented, loss prevention, safety, merchandising and operational efficiency applications as well.  Grabango collaborates with its clients to thoughtfully apply technology to promote superior shopping experiences and a safer workplace that facilitates more store associate-to-shopper interactions.  

According to a recent Gallup Survey of 1,033 Americans, 81% of respondents shop in a grocery or other similar store at least once per week.  When considering the time savings and convenience potential for all of these shoppers, it’s easy to understand why so many of us are excited about introducing checkout-free technology to shoppers around the world. Today’s announcement was an important first step to achieving that vision and we could not be more excited about taking it with Giant Eagle.

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PITTSBURGH, PA – July 16, 2019 — Today, Giant Eagle, Inc., one of the nation’s leading food, fuel, and pharmacy retailers, and Grabango, the leading checkout-free technology provider for existing brick-and-mortar stores, announced a first-of-its-kind partnership designed to create a no-wait checkout experience.

By partnering with Grabango, Giant Eagle strengthens its commitment to continually invest in the latest forward-thinking technologies to enhance the shopping experience for customers. Grabango’s enterprise-class platform is designed to operate across Giant Eagle’s multi-format footprint with checkout-free technologies providing the flexibility that Giant Eagle greatly values.

According to a recent study conducted by Forrester Research, waiting in the checkout line is the top complaint among US grocery shoppers. Giant Eagle and Grabango hope to provide a remedy for this consistent pain point through their frictionless solution.

With Grabango’s checkout-free technology, customers will enter the store and immediately start shopping as they normally would – without any hurdles, such as turnstiles or costly memberships. The more advanced checkout-free system automatically keeps a running total of the items each shopper selects.

Grabango’s platform has been installed at a pilot Giant Eagle location and multiple executions of the payment technology are being optimized, including an app-based solution and another that allows the customer to pay with any tender they choose. The solution does not use facial recognition technology but instead utilizes computer vision and machine learning to track shopped items. All data is anonymized to protect customer privacy.

“Giant Eagle is committed to advancing technologies that create an improved, stress-free shopping experience for our customers while still protecting their privacy,” said Giant Eagle’s Director of Corporate Communications, Dan Donovan. “In Grabango, we have found a partner who shares our commitment and who can help us bring this enhanced experience to life.”

“Giant Eagle has been a fantastic partner on this groundbreaking project,” said Will Glaser, Grabango’s CEO. “We are excited to be announcing our first checkout-free partnership with a major U.S. retailer. Together, we are offering a technology that is seamless and equitable for all.”


About Giant Eagle
Giant Eagle, Inc., ranked among the top 40 on Forbes magazine’s largest private corporations list, is one of the nation’s largest food, fuel and pharmacy retailers with approximately $8.9 billion in annual sales. Founded in 1931, Giant Eagle, Inc. has grown to be a leading retailer in the region with more than 460 stores throughout western Pennsylvania, Ohio, northern West Virginia, Maryland and Indiana.

For more information, visit www.gianteagle.com.

About Grabango
Grabango is the leading checkout-free technology service provider for existing, large scale stores. Grabango delivers a next-generation shopper experience and is the only enterprise-class, checkout-free solution on the market today. The Grabango platform includes a fault-tolerant, edge computing network that accurately processes millions of simultaneous transactions. The system places no limits on who can enter the store, what can be sold there, or how the shelving is configured.

Grabango was founded in 2016 by Will Glaser, former CTO and co-founder of Pandora Radio. The company has raised $18M to date from top venture capital firms and is headquartered in Berkeley, CA.

For more information, visit www.grabango.com.

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Computer vision has long been just an esoteric field hidden at the depths of academic research. Scientists toiled to create mathematical algorithms that could extract meaning from the grid of light and dark pixels that make up an image. How can people look at these pixels and so easily distinguish between a cat and a toaster?

cat-vs-toaster
It’s easy to tell these images apart even though they’re both made up of nothing more than gray squares.

Recall that each pixel conveys nothing more than a single color; still, millions of them are generated by your phone’s camera every second. The combination of these pixels can describe literally anything the camera sees. Even a child’s eye can trivially integrate them to identify objects, but teaching a computer to do the same had been a significant computational challenge. Now that computers can see, the way people interact with things will never be the same.

Over the past decade, advancing computer platforms have finally unlocked the power in these techniques to catapult computer vision into the vanguard of modern societal change. Synergies at the intersection of machine learning and computer vision are the foundation upon which a major leap in technological capability is happening. The coming revolution will be as transformative as any we’ve seen so far.

Reaching “Peak Screen”
In the early days of computer science, only nerdy programmers used computers. Then, the invention of the application program welcomed in a broad range of business analysts, word processors, and video gamers. The always-on mobile internet, with its wide array of consumer products and everyday benefits, has finally brought the computer revolution to everyone. We love it so much that we’ve surrounded ourselves with more screens than any of those early users could have ever imagined. We interact with them at home, at work, in our cars, our pockets, and on our wrists.

The typical American spends 11 hours per day looking at a screen.
Image Source: Getty Images

We have reached the point of “peak screen” where screens are virtually always present and demanding our attention. Why so many? Because all these interfaces are necessary to communicate with our computers. Computing is such an integral part of how we conduct our everyday lives that we don’t realize how much time we spend telling our machines what to do, what we want, or what we just did.

Fortunately, the easing of this communication burden has already begun. It was led by early machine learning companies like Nest and Pandora. We no longer need to decipher the maddeningly complex programmable thermostat or painstakingly assemble the ideal playlist. I can simply say I want it a bit warmer right now and that I’m loving a particular song and appropriate algorithms hear me and adjust. These systems not only take literal action in the moment but go on to generalize my intent to improve the experience for me overall. Iterate a few times and life is good. The learning aspect of these systems allows them to intuit what I want without forcing a heavy burden to instruct them in detail. Greater meaning is conveyed through fewer instructions, which is undeniably a welcome advance.

Operating in the Background
Computer vision is accelerating this process. With it we’ll simply go about our lives, doing what we like, and the computers will quietly keep track. We’ll no longer need to instruct them affirmatively about what just happened because they’ll have seen it at the same time we did; and more importantly, be able to understand our intent. As computers can see more for themselves, the need for all those screens, keyboards, and indicator lights will recede.

Will it be difficult for us to adapt? No, these computer vision systems are passive; and inherently easy to use. Precisely because there’s no need to instruct them, there’s similarly no need to learn how to use them. Each of the last technological revolutions forced us to learn the new tools, to adapt to the new world, and to remake ourselves to fit in. This one is different, delightfully different. We’ll just do what’s natural and vision-based systems will manage the details.

The Rise of Automation
One common example of public automation is toll roads. Since the turn of the century, many toll booths across the country have been replaced by automated systems that “see” people drive by and understand that their intent is to use the road and pay the toll. This freedom would have felt impossible 20 years earlier but is now accepted and taken for granted by millions of motorists each day.

Grabango-Checkout-Free
Automation will bring efficiencies to many parts of our everyday lives as computers fade into the background.
Image Source: Getty Images

Another example is the one that I work on, Checkout-Free Shopping. It uses computer vision to see what goes into your shopping cart so the cashier can know what to charge without having to scan every item’s barcode. Like with toll roads, this offers the consumer enormous savings in time and convenience. Much hyped, but probably still five to ten years away, are driverless cars. Also coming are automated parking meters, ticketless amusement parks, high-accuracy medical uses, and numerous industrial applications. Each has, or soon will, make our lives better and then quickly be taken for granted. Adoption will be swift as these systems simplify the experience by fluidly handling the technical bits.

New Freedom
Now that computers can see, the way people interact with things will never be the same. We are about to be freed from waiting in line, manually operating machines, and constantly entering obvious things into a computer. Past advances in computing have unsurprisingly led to more computers doing more things for us. Machine learning and computer vision is a part of that trend of increasing capability and will similarly lead to computers doing increasingly more. The ironic difference this time is they will not stand in front, demanding our attention, but in the background where they belong. We will be freed to interact as people and let the computers do the computing. This revolution will remove many of our screens and facilitate the rehumanizing of society.