4 technologies that could reshape retail operations

With pilots, companies are exploring biometric payments, robot delivery and smart carts.

people sitting at a table

(Illustration by The Current)

Welcome to Near Future. In this weekly feature, The Current spotlights innovations powering the next wave of commerce.

If new pilots from tech companies and retailers prove to scale, items will be delivered by robots, we’ll pay with a smile and collect coupons with voice controls.

Here’s a look at the latest emerging technologies being tested this week:

Uber’s autonomous delivery

A woman taking a bag out of a robot.

Serve's robot is in LA. (Handout photo)

Uber Eats is working to become the go-to delivery platform for local commerce. A pair of pilots launched by the company in Los Angeles this week indicate that it doesn’t intend for its nearby delivery won’t be human-powered.

In one pilot, Uber is working with Motional on autonomous food deliveries in Santa Monica. Motional, which is joint venture of the AV company Aptiv and Hyundai Motors, makes electric vehicles, outfitted its IONIQ 5 vehicles specifically for commercial delivery for the first time. It comes after testing that included learning every touchpoint between a customer and restaurant.

Here’s how it works, per a news release:

Participating merchants will receive a notification when the AV arrives, meet the vehicle at the designated pick-up location, and place the order in a specially-designed compartment in the backseat. Upon arrival at the drop-off location, the customer will receive an alert, securely unlock the vehicle door via the Uber Eats app, and collect their order from the backseat.

Uber is also testing delivery with Serve Robotics, a sidewalk delivery company. According to TechCrunch, the pilot will complete shorter trips in West Hollywood. Serve Robotics was originally the robotics division of Postmates, then spun out of Uber.

These being pilots, the companies will be seeking feedback, and looking to learn. They’re also looking to lay the groundwork for future work together.

In a third partnership for Uber that extends its work in the grocery area, Grocery Outlet will offer on-demand and scheduled grocery delivery at 72 stores on the West Coast. Uber launched grocery delivery in 2020, expanding into the same terrain as Instacart and other rapid delivery services. CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said in April that the company is looking to work with grocers to set up the service in a "capital light way."

"We are excited about the long-term potential of our eCommerce initiative at Grocery Outlet and this new partnership with Uber," said RJ Sheedy, President of Grocery Outlet, in a statement. "We think it's important to make our great-value products available across another platform and to a greater audience, introducing Grocery Outlet to customers who may not have shopped with us before."

Amazon’s voice assist

A new feature that debuted on Amazon’s Alexa is combining coupons with voice tech.

Alexa Shopping List Savings allows users to add grocery items that receive a rebate to a shopping list. Once shopping is complete, users can scan receipts from stores where they purchased the item. Alexa then rewards cashback in the form of a digital gift card based on the purchases made.

In other Alexa news, Amazon added a feature that notifies Prime members when an item in their cart, wish list or save for later list are going live. It sends the alert up to 24 hours in advance of the deal, and users can either opt to have Alexa make the purchase, or send a second notification once it is live.

It's two more steps toward enabling voice-assisted shopping.

Mastercard's biometric payments

Making payments easier will be in focus as the internet comes to the store, and this week brought a new advance that truly seems to be from the future.

Mastercard is rolling a system that applies the technology behind facial recognition and fingerprint-unlock on a mobile phone to in-store checkout.

The Mastercard’s Biometric Checkout Program allows shoppers to pay for an item by simply smiling or waving their hand over a reader. Users must enroll to access the benefits of the program. For merchants, Mastercard touts benefits including faster checkout times, as well as the ability to integrate with loyalty programs, and personalization. It is working with EC, Payface, Aurus, PaybyFace, PopID and Fujitsu Limited on the effort.

The technology is currently being piloted in Brazil, with upcoming test runs being planned in the Middle East and Asia. With a launch this week, Mastercard said it is rolling out a set of standards that banks, tech companies and merchants adhere to.

Mastercard cited a study from Idemia that showed 74% of consumers have a positive attitude toward biometrics.

Smart carts

a smart cart in a produce aisle

(Image via Veeve)

Not to be outdone, a grocery-focused pilot wants to forego the line altogether.

Self-checkout is coming straight to the grocery cart at Albertsons. Veeve, a startup that was founded by ex-Amazon engineers, is rolling out AI-powered carts that use computer vision to ID products when they are placed in a cart, and can also weigh produce.

Items are displayed on a touchscreen that keeps a running total of customers’ items. In turn, the screen can integrate with loyalty programs, and ad networks. According to Veeve’s website, it can also give turn-by-turn directions to an item in the store.

It’s all part of creating a personalized shopping experience, and one is that is connected across different digital and offline channels.

“This deployment is an important and inevitable next step in connecting the consumer’s ecommerce activity with a totally new, digitally driven in-store shopping experience,” said Shariq Siddiqui, Veeve’s cofounder and CEO, in a statement. “Working with Albertsons Cos., we are building a link between multiple consumer channels and the brands they trust while keeping customer loyalty central to the experience.”

Given these advances, it's not hard to picture a future where the shopping cart is filled both physically and digitally.

Subscribe to The Current Newsletter

Trending in Operations

Shopper Experience

AI, but make it fashion: Rent the Runway, Stitch Fix look generative

"Fashion ecommerce is one of the most cumbersome customer experiences that exists," said Rent the Runway CEO Jennifer Hyman.

AI, but make it fashion: Rent the Runway, Stitch Fix look generative

Photo by Daniel G. Wells III, used under a Creative Commons license.

The rise of generative AI is bringing with it a groundswell of interest and concern about how the capability to automatically synthesize information and create something new will change how we work.

Given that AI will sit within the architecture of our digital lives, it’s also worth considering how the technology will introduce new tools for other aspects of life, as well.

Keep reading...Show less

Latest from Operations