More technology aims to get ahead of Amazon Go

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One of the options for brick and mortar to strike back at e-commerce is real-time in-store analysis, where nascent technology gives consumers the a personalized experience without stopping to pay or engage with staff.

"It's the last mile," said Steve Sarracino, founder and partner at Activant Capital. "You know who is doing what … and you can connect a shopper to an item."

Activant's portfolio includes a recent lead on a $17 million investment in NewStore, a Boston-based mobile retail platform that combines in-store and online engagement to create a single view of a consumer's shopping and payments across channels. Over the past couple of years, Activant has been part of more than $100 million in investments in RetailNext, a San Jose-based in-store analytics company that uses sensors as part of its mix of marketing, omnichannel, loss prevention and mobile point of sale products.

The New York-based Activant has also been part of more than $60 million in investments in ShopKeep POS, another New York-based company that embeds payments and digital content into tablets and other mobile devices.

All of these technologies aim to bring online shopping and mobile payment into stores—an Amazon meets Uber model—in part to counter Amazon's increasing dominance over retail.

RetailNext's sensors play one of the most interesting roles in this evolution, according to Sarracino. The sensors, which have their roots in casino security, have been improved to distinguish staff from shoppers, and can ID where shoppers are in stores and what they are buying.

"The shopping experience needs to change, and retailers now understand that and consumers are craving it," said Bridget Johns, head of marketing and customer experience at RetailNext.

The maturation of cashierless technology is probably about a year away, but there are some intermediate benefits to be had by pairing several sensors together, Johns said. These overlapping fields can track how shoppers navigate with "great precision," and tag shopping to demographics and start parsing in a way that can unlock opportunities, she said.

Sensor technology is expanding outside of managing supply chains to the shopping floor, she said, adding the next step is tracking the real-time movement of products off of the shelves. That will feed broader deployments that include cashierless payments.

"It won't be a one size fits all," she said. "A lot of convenience stores are looking at how to reduce their cashier count, though for luxury retailers that adoption will probably look different."

RetailNext's moves hope to provide a foundation for retailers to compete with Amazon Go, the e-commerce company's concept store in which people shop for items and walk out of the store without stopping to pay—with Amazon's technology sensing what has been bought and automatically adding it to the consumer's Amazon account.

Amazon has had some hiccups with the technology. It's had success with security, though Amazon Go has also required human help to deal with volume and identifying some items. And like Standard Cognition, a New York-based startup that also designs cashierless store technology, RetailNext's sensors use artificial intelligence to improve performance over time.

"This technology heavily overlaps with the technologies used for cashierless checkout such as Amazon Go," said Rick Oglesby, founder and president of AZ Payments Group. "However the analytics components are easier to implement because they don’t directly impact the customer shopping experience, in-store operations, and the flow of inventory. We’ll probably see faster adoption of the technologies for analytics purposes, with a more gradual adoption of walk-out payment."

The volume challenges that are hamstringing "no cashier" stores are related to the pixelation of the camera images, Sarracino said. The sensors' melding of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth allows stores to track shoppers, ID items in stores, distinguish staff from shoppers and track new-versus-repeat customers, visit frequency and capture rate, he said.

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