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It might not feel like a high-tech activity to stand at a supermarket shelf debating which tomato sauce to buy, but don’t be fooled: Big Brother is watching. To put it more exactly, there is a system observing what you’re observing.  

Welcome to the supermarket of the future! A world of algorithms, lasers and customer-specific advertising. But before you protest this invasion of privacy, read what an expert has to say on this topic. Meet Christine Heinz, instructor at the Food Akademie in Neuwied, Germany, where supermarket managers learn their trade.

Christina Heinz

How is digitalization affecting supermarkets?

There is a lot of technology available, even if it is not put into use everywhere. For instance, you can install cameras in the aisles that can detect the overall identity of a customer: female or male, for example. Then a screen can advertise a product favored by that target group, such as make-up for a woman or aftershave for men.

That’s spooky!

That’s a typical reaction. This is the prejudice we face in brick-and-mortar stores. When people shop online, they don’t hesitate to enter their name, e-mail address, and credit card number. Otherwise they wouldn’t be able to buy anything. Yet when they walk into a store, they would never volunteer such detailed personal information and are often indignant at the mere idea.

But image data collected by cameras is not stored. Nor is it possible to identify individuals. This would be contrary to our strict German data protection laws. The reality is that targeted advertising is already being carried out in stores – just not digitally. It’s done by a salesperson who watches people enter the store or walk past, and then addresses individuals who fall into the appropriate target group.

Does AI play role in the supermarket of the future?

A network of lasers can track customers as they move through a store. If several people head towards the checkout counter, the system sends an alert that more cashiers are needed. The same goes for the meat, bakery and deli counters: the system can call for support before the customer even has to wait in line. It also frees employees from having to monitor the number of customers waiting and speeds up the entire process.

Do topics of sustainability, regional sourcing and the circular economy come into play in the supermarket of the future?

Packaging information requirements restrict how many products can be sold in bulk to eliminate packaging. This is only possible for items such as produce, rice, etc. Also, it is relatively easy to source such products regionally and indicate their origin.

But the higher the degree of product complexity, the more difficult it is to indicate its origin. Eggs could be laid in the Netherlands but packaged in Germany. Other products consist of many ingredients. These all must be listed on the label and indicating each ingredient’s origins would be practically impossible. This is mostly done by the familiar barcodes, or the GS1 Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) by GS1. The system can identify products by origin, price them and is the most commonly-used technology for this purpose worldwide. It would be nearly impossible to have a barcode for each individual ingredient of every product.

In the UK, the IoT provider Hark and AI provider SeeChange have launched a project with Asda supermarkets. They are collecting customer data with over 200 in-store sensors to better tailor their products to customers. Would that be possible in Germany?

No, that would be against the law here. But it is still possible to use anonymized data to improve service, monitor inventory and make stores more efficient.

If the customer registers at the entrance with a customer app, this data can also be evaluated in a more targeted manner. Typically, this is being done with a store-specific app that features a bonus system or allows the customer to collect points.

How about high-tech shopping carts, like a smart cart that could take me to exactly the product I want to buy? Or a self-driving cart?

That has already been developed by one of our partners, DFKI (DFKI (Deutsches Forschungszentrum für KI – German Research Center for AI). This center is located within the self-service store of the German GLOBUS-SB-Warenhaus Holding in St. Wendel, Germany. They develop and test technologies such as personalized shopping assistants, “talking” products as well as intelligent shopping carts that guide you through the store according to your shopping list. They can give you advice on what to buy for a particular recipe, compare products, point out special offers in a personalized way and provide additional product information.

But as for self-driving carts, retailers are not keen on them. After all, it’s in their interest to keep customers in the store as long as possible, not to get them out the door quickly.

When can we expect to see all of this technology in our local supermarkets?

Most of the time you won’t be aware that it’s there. A lot of it is behind the scenes. Each store or chain makes its own decisions on what technology they employ and when. At our institute, our mission is to familiarize them with what is available; they decide. And they usually make decisions based on what can improve the bottom line.

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