Can invisible checkout work in 100-year-old stores?

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Giant Eagle’s supermarkets go back a century, literally, making the Pittsburgh chain one of the best tests yet for how the supermarket experience can adapt to mobile technology and the de-emphasizing of traditional checkout.

The store chain's not entirely sure yet what the outcome will be, but it knows it won’t be a straight path to an Amazon Go-style concept, where customers scan in with a mobile app and then walk out without having to interact with a cash register. Amazon designed its Go stores from scratch, with built-in cameras and sensors designed to register every shopper and detect which items they leave with.

But Giant Eagle also knows it can’t sit still. The next year or so will be telling, as the chain gradually introduces new ways to shop and pay, and finds out what checkout technologies work best.

Giant Eagle is considering options to advance automation for its varied mix of stores, including 216 supermarkets, 202 GetGo convenience stores and 56 Rickers stores.

“These stores have been around for a long time. These buildings have been around for many years. We’re trying to recognize the movement toward new technology but see how we can make this work for our stores,” said Jannah Jablanowski, a spokesperson for Giant Eagle.

Giant Eagle is starting with one of its smaller stores in anticipation of a more formal test and ultimately a full chain rollout. Giant Eagle has installed checkout-free systems in a Pittsburgh-area GetGo, and will consider what mix of technology and change is possible in the larger store layouts — then it will make its move.

One option is an app-based system, with cameras and GPS, to identify shoppers as they enter the store. Sensors will then track items as the person shops, without requiring a formal checkout process to pay. This model is closest to the types of deployments at Amazon, Zippin and Standard Cognition.

Another option is what Jablanowski calls a “non facial recognition camera” that will identify a shopper’s silhouette, then recognize items during shopping and execute an expedited self-serve payment through cash, debit, mobile or other payment type at the end of the shopping experience.

In either case, the chain wants to ensure there’s options for cash and traditional card payments, and does not envision the move to “checkout free” payments as a full migration. “There are more options that we have talked through,” Jablanowski said.

The challenge for Giant Eagle is the same challenge for the entire retail industry as it tries to bring mobile commerce and streamlined checkout into traditional stores. Shortening checkout times and lines is a necessity in a world where people can shop online. But prevailing checkout-free technology has at least two major issues — it has struggled in large environments with large crowds, and it generally fails to accommodate consumers who prefer traditional payment options such as cash.

Both hurdles apply in Giant Eagle’s case.

“Most of the ‘no checkout’ technology is building the store to fit the technology, but for us as an existing brick and mortar, we don’t have that ability,” Jablanowski said. “It’s our responsibility to go off and find the technology that makes sense for our customers but still streamlines the shopping experience.”

Giant Eagle will also determine how the checkout-free model works with other innovations and incentive marketing. The chain’s no luddite — it was one of the first supermarket chains in Pennsylvania to computerize its buying system, install bar codes at cash registers, place ATMs in stores, roll out a branded payment card, and more recently opened one of the country’s first LEED-certified supermarkets.

Giant Eagle recently added a curbside express pickup program that pairs with online shopping and an expedited self-checkout via the chain’s mobile app. Through these initiatives, Giant Eagle has found consumers often want a mix of experiences, which vary by time, demographic, tech-savvy and other factors.

“Consumers may not have time or the desire to shop in the whole store,” Jablanowski said. “Or in some cases they may want to look around and choose what they want. We don’t want to force people into an option.”

Giant Eagle also hopes its checkout project can boost the store's loyalty program, or vice versa. The supermarket chain offers an incentive program that's based on spent in the store.

“The program is not dependent on the platform, but if there’s a mobile-based technology in play along with the no-checkout system, that would be a way to track the rewards incrementally as the consumers are shopping,” Jablanowski said.

Giant Eagle’s technology provider, the Berkeley, Calif.-based Grabango, uses computer vision sensors and machine learning technology to identify and track store items and prices. Any consumer data is anonymized, and the company says it does not use facial recognition technology.

“We are working on multiple versions of consumer-facing options including, technology that requires an app registration and others that don’t,” said Andrew Radlow, chief business officer for Grabango. “Our goal is to provide choices that suit shoppers’ individual preferences.”

Customers enter the store and start shopping immediately without walking through physical barriers such as turnstiles. When they are done, shoppers can pay using any tender accepted by the store including cash, SNAP benefits, or mobile payments.

Grabango contends it addresses pain points, such as consumers no longer needing to unload items onto a conveyor belt, wait for items to be scanned, or rebag groceries. The model isn’t designed to eliminate cashiers but to recast them. “Cashiers are needed in the process to check IDs or provide information to shoppers in real-time,” Radlow said.

Successfully addressing issues such as store footprint, crowd size and the mix of new and old payment preferences will be vital for streamlined or no-checkout stores to be viable for chains of full-sized stores.

Streamlined checkout technology can produce a trove of actionable data even without facial recognition or personal information; and the challenges in building technology have created a no-checkout technology race, attracting Amazon, Walmart, Microsoft and technology companies such as RetailNext.

Whether the technology uses cameras on shopping carts, in-store ceilings or evolved casino technology (as is the case with RetailNext), no one has figured out the checkout-free model at scale yet.

“There’s a bunch of exceptions in the first generation of autonomous checkout, such as the things that are hard to read, like jars of jam that all look the same, produce, etc.,” said Richard Crone, a payments consultant. “How does a no-cashier system tell the difference between organic strawberries and regular strawberries? So what the checkout-free stores do is reduce the footprint to try to eliminate as many exceptions as they can to prove the concept.”

The barriers to personalize no-checkout shopping at scale include the need for a known customer supported by a CRM-business model and pre-authorized payment; artificial intelligence-driven algorithms and predictive analytics fed by real-time data; and a good user experience and interface, Crone said.

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