Not all shopping carts are the same... far from it! Digitization and automation also put their stamp on this aspect of the retail sector. What’s usually a plain, large basket on wheels that makes it easier for shoppers to transport products throughout the store might soon become a smart shopping companion. iXtenso took a closer look at the latest trends.
Autonomous driving: A DFKI project
The German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI) studies the shopping cart of the future. The objective is an autonomous shopping cart. This means a self-driving shopping cart that can follow consumers around the store or ideally leads in front and navigates its way to the desired products. Several challenges must still be mastered before the cart is reliable in its operation.
The cart needs to be linked to the respective shopper before it can follow behind or alongside during the shopping trip. "Depending on the applied sensor technology, the link can be established via optical sensors or by connecting to the customer's smartphone," explains Frederic Kerber, Head of the Innovative Retail Laboratory (IRL) at DFKI.
If the shopping cart is meant to reliably navigate shoppers, it must be able to plot the route to the desired products. To do this, the cart needs accurate product position data, a map of the store, and real-time information about its own position. "The use of indoor positioning technology can be a reliable solution in this setting, while other approaches use sensors inside the shopping cart to solve this issue," says Kerber.
The biggest challenge when it comes to navigation is how to manage random and moving obstacles. In retail scenarios, this applies to both employees and customers who walk around the retail store. According to Kerber, the technology is not yet mature enough to avoid collisions or minor crashes 100% of the time, which is why the shopping cart cannot be found in stores just yet.
DFKI also collaborates with the Korea Institute of Science and Technology Europe (KIST Europe) as part of the German-Korean cooperation project “WALL-ET - Warehouse Autonomous Lean Logistics Entity for Transportation". The goal is to develop a transport robot with a height-adjustable table for ergonomic loading and unloading that is intended for both industry and retail purposes.
The system would make it possible to easily load, unload, and transport heavy items such as furniture or large pallets. Another conceivable option is to add a robotic arm able to autonomously grab items off the shelf and place them inside the shopping cart. Apart from the required technology, the project also aims to develop the necessary software. The idea is to facilitate seamless human-robot interaction.
Already in full action: the smart cart by Caper
The smart self-checkout cart made by the American company Caper is not a research project, but a real application. The company’s “Smart Cart” instantly catches your eye thanks to a touchscreen monitor, built-in barcode scanner and payment terminal located right at the customer’s eye level in the space, where you might typically find a child seat.
GPS and self-scanning
The "Smart Cart" combines self-scanning, self-checkout, and navigation options. The monitor displays a map of the store, helping customers navigate to the desired product. Localization is made possible by sensors, which are installed throughout the store. Customers also get information about sales, products and even recipes via the display.
Customers can use the built-in barcode scanner to scan their items. Integrated sensors detect items inside the cart or identify whether they have been removed again. Unpackaged items such as produce are weighed right inside the cart.
There is no need to register with a smartphone or customer card to use the smart carts. Customers only need a credit card or smartphone to pay directly using the cart thanks to the built-in payment terminal. Just one slight drawback: the carts don’t accept cash payments at this point.
A better shopping experience
Several grocery chains in the U.S. and Canada have used the Smart Cart technology since early 2019. “Customers enjoy an improved shopping and payment experience in stores that use our smart carts. On average, customers buy 18 percent more per visit, while shoppers give us a 9.1 out of 10 rating,” says Lindon Gao, CEO of Caper.
Customer satisfaction, increased sales – clearly a development that garners added benefits from both a retail and customer perspective. And what about the DFKI projects? Transport robots, robotic arms, and autonomous shopping carts could offer great support where customers need physical assistance - whether that’s because of physical disabilities or simply because the products are too heavy or bulky to lift and carry.
In conclusion: There is great untapped potential even in places that may at first glance seem insignificant to the shopping experience.