Sobeys Inc. is testing a computerized shopping cart that lets customers scan groceries and pay for them, without having to line up at a checkout counter.
The machine, called a smart cart, currently operates like a self-checkout on wheels, with a built-in scale that weighs produce placed in the cart, as well a scanner, a screen that shows the total bill and a card reader to take payments. The customer clicks what they’re buying, puts it in the cart, pays and leaves.
But the national grocery chain has grander ambitions. Soon, it hopes the cart will know exactly what you’re putting inside of it without the need to scan a barcode or tap buttons on a screen.
“The cart gets smarter as you shop,” Mathieu Lacoursiere, Sobeys vice-president of retail support, said on Wednesday.
He expects the carts’ network of mounted cameras — taking 100 pictures of every item — will soon be able to tell whether an airborne apple, on its short flight from a customer’s hand to the bottom of the basket, is a McIntosh or an Empire. It will also be able to take a customer’s grocery list, plan a route through the store and guide them to each item using an on-screen map. Or, a customer can just choose a recipe and the cart will show them where the requisite ingredients are in the store.
Take out an item and return it to the shelf, and the cart, registering the lightened load, might say, “We believe you just took out the pears” and adjust the bill displayed on screen.
Sobeys dispatched a fleet of 10 smart carts to a store in the Toronto suburb of Oakville, Ont., for testing on Wednesday. Employees at the Glenn Abbey location will take three weeks getting used to the carts before allowing customers to try them.
The company wouldn’t say what it plans to do with the carts after the pilot project. The New York-based manufacturer supplying the carts, Caper Inc., last month closed US$10 million in Series A funding, with plans to make more carts.
“We can make thousands of these things a week,” Caper co-founder Ahmed Beshry said.
For now, Sobeys isn’t looking to replace regular carts with smart carts — an undertaking that would involve between 100 to 250 carts per store. The reason Sobeys started looking at smart carts in the first place, Lacoursiere said, was to address the checkout “pain point.” Smart carts are meant to give customers an extra option, along with self-checkout machines and human cashiers.
Long lineups at check-out is one of the biggest issues for customers, second only to out-of-stock items, said Jean-Pierre Lacroix, whose firm Shikatani Lacroix works on grocery store design and consulted with Sobeys early in the smart cart project. Smart carts could be a better answer to the checkout problem than “awkward and clumsy” self-checkouts, he said.
“People are still reluctant to use the self-checkout, unless you’re a millennial,” he said. Those machines continue to frustrate customers despite years of fine-tuning, because they’re “forcing you into new behaviour.”
“Putting a product in your basket? You’ve been doing that. Your father and mother have been doing that,” he said. “We’ve been doing that for the last 100 years.”