The Covid-19 pandemic has undoubtedly had an influence on people’s shopping habits. Even though it has dramatically disrupted the retail sector, the effects have varied massively between brick-and-mortar versus online shops, essential versus nonessential stores, and small versus large retailers – as a report by the OECD shows. As thousands of small, traditional street-side stores had to size-down or declare bankruptcy, giant online retailers like Amazon have reported a massive upsurge in sales.
This time has not been easy on retail SMEs as customer movement became restricted by quarantine regulations or fear of exposure to a potential health hazard when they shop. Stores that have been deemed essential services experienced other concerns - as a recent UC Berkeley report surmised, store workers have documented overcrowded stores, insufficient social distancing and disinfection, and delays in providing safety equipment.
Tackling pandemic-induced worker and consumer health risks is essential for keeping a retail business afloat long-term. Limiting person-to-person contact by entrusting some of the repetitive everyday tasks to AI-powered machines might be a way to achieve that. Besides, automating things like the shelving system and detecting theft has proved to increase store profitability and is part of a greater trend that started before the pandemic.
The cashierless Amazon Go stores are probably the most famous example of retailers investing in AI-powered “in-store” technology. However, with most of its stores located in the US, it has no presence in the EU market. Here, PIXEVIA, is the EU-based leader in providing AI powered store-automation and smart city technologies to retail companies in France, the Netherlands, the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia, and the Baltics.
While the primary focus for PIXEVIA team was initiating PIXEVIA Smart Stores, designed to make shopping for essential goods easy, quick, and convenient - over time, the interest to develop transferable AI technology for any retailer across Europe became the main focus. Simultaneously, as the global pandemic hit - PIXEVIA noticed that the technology they developed in cashierless stores could solve health hazards to optimize shopper safety. For instance, the AI powered store is periodically disinfected with UV light, offers a checkout-free experience, and –most importantly– requires no personnel to function.
“The pandemic really ramped up the need for a safer shopping experience. Overcrowding created by the store workers and clients, customer queues, and poor premise disinfection are things that regular grocery shops have to tackle. AI- powered stores, however, are unmanned and take literally seconds to check out. No queueing and no personnel limits present day health hazards significantly,” – commented Mindaugas Eglinskas, CEO of PIXEVIA.
The rate of adoption of such technology broadly has been slow, since historically the retail industry has been reluctant to make investments inside stores. However, the pandemic has reorganised the priorities and it would seem reasonable to strive to partially automate the retail sector, where wellbeing of customers and staff are concerned.
Egliskas believes that 'the digital divide' will inevitably have to shrink - while historically only the most progressive retailers would undertake robust investments in cutting-edge technology - today even smaller retailers will have to invest in technology to become more competitive, adjusting to the new retail realities.
Knowing that convincing companies to invest in something that may sound like sci-fi invention is going to be a challenge, PIXEVIA has successfully implemented a proof-of-concept store. The Smart Store provides one of the fastest shopping experiences in Europe and is the only fully automated store on the continent.
“After nearly 2 years of trial and error, we can now say that we offer a safe and convenient way to purchase essential goods, which include packaged foods, hygiene products, and –most recently– perishable products like fruits and vegetables. We have overcome r&d challenges, accumulated expertise and perfected the installation process. In turn, we are proceeding to our next milestone – offering our cashierless shopping systems to retail chains, gas stations, kiosks, and cafes. While it might seem like a futuristic solution, I’m certain that in a few years, cashierless stores will be as common as self-checkout cash registers are today,” said Eglinskas.
As the world adapts to the effects of the pandemic, the concept of a regular shopping experience is changing. While customer safety driven adoption of AI technology in the retail sector might seem like radical transformation to some, in reality, this is an escalation of a trend that began before 2020.