Sobeys provides a bigger testing ground for Caper's AI shopping cart

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In an international expansion move, AI-powered grocery cart startup Caper has begun a pilot with one of Canada’s largest grocery chains, Sobeys, at a suburban Toronto location.

The pilot is being conducted at a 41,000 square foot Sobeys full-service grocery store in the affluent neighborhood of Glen Abbey, which is part of Oakville, Ontario, a 30-minute drive from Toronto.

The Caper carts will operate in tandem with traditional grocery carts used at the store. The Caper Smart Cart allows customers to skip checkout lanes and enables a retailer to alert shoppers of deals in nearby aisles through an interactive display.

“This type of store is larger than a typical Whole Foods store and typically has about 100 to 200 carts. The implications [of the partnership] for us are huge and we are well-positioned to start scaling,” said Lindon Gao, co-founder and CEO at Caper, which is based in New York.

Caper reports that the Glen Abbey location is the only store in the Sobeys chain that is currently using its carts, and declined to predict when additional store locations would be added.

In the fast-paced landscape of automated checkouts, there appear to be two distinct, diametrically opposed approaches of offering retailers and consumers a cashierless checkout experience.

On one side of the spectrum is a sophisticated system of cameras and sensors that track what customers take off shelves and put in their baskets, as is done by Amazon Go and Standard Cognition. On the other end are technologies that require the customer to either scan items as they put them in a cart, or the cart itself is able to scan items as they are placed in the basket. Walmart piloted a Scan & Go app technology in 100 stores before dropping it in 2018.

The camera approach is more expensive and requires a major store retrofit, while smart carts and scanning apps are easy to deploy rapidly in existing large-format stores. Camera-based systems typically support a limited number of items and customers in-store. Amazon is reportedly planning to open a 10,000 square foot store in the near future, while most of its new stores have been about 2,500 square feet, roughly the size of a convenience store.

“Caper’s challenge is that Amazon Go is setting the shopping experience bar in autonomous checkout, much like Uber has done in rideshare, and anything less risks delivering a disappointing customer experience," said Richard Crone, principal of Crone Consulting. "The real value is on check-in and not checkout, since check-in allows a retailer to guide the shopping experience and build on it the next time a customer checks in at the store’s turnstile.”

Earlier this year, Caper announced two grocery chains in the New York City area had started using its AI-powered shopping cart — Food Cellar in Long Island City in Queens and Gala Fresh in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn. Since both are smaller retailers, the partnership with Sobeys is a major step up in the world of autonomous checkout.

Sobeys Inc. is owned by the Canadian conglomerate Empire Company Ltd and runs its food retailing business with more than 1,500 stores across Canada. It operates under several brands including Sobeys, Safeway, IGA, Farm Boy, Foodland, FreshCo, Thrifty Foods and Rachelle Béry in five different retail formats including full-service, “Fresh” (more limited), community (rural), discount and convenience stores.

Crone noted that Caper is just one of more than 100 autonomous checkout pilots his organization is tracking across the globe, with more than 60 different vendors providing the technology.

In examining the Caper Smart Cart, one physical drawback is immediately noticeable — it lacks the ability to carry a child in the shopping cart or basket. Gao stated that Caper would be adding an external child seat attachment to the cart in a few months to address the matter.

Until this happens, “they are missing out on the most transaction-rich cohort — moms with kids — since they do most of the grocery shopping, often with young children in tow," Crone said. "Moms generally have a smartphone in their hand and often use the cart to carry kids, especially toddlers.”

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