This article was originally published in the Winter 2015 issue of OnWindows.
Imagine walking into a grocery store that combines the friendly, open atmosphere of a traditional market with digital technologies that enable the products to tell you their story. As you walk around the product displays you can interact with other shoppers, without racks of shelving getting in the way. Yet sophisticated screens are ready to give you all the information you want about the products that interest you, as well as suggestions based on your food preferences and dietary needs.
This is the Supermarket of the Future. It’s a reality that thousands of visitors have already experienced during its six-month tenure within the Future Food District at Expo Milano 2015 – and which is set to inspire many more at the National Retail Federation show in January 2016. The concept was designed by Carlo Ratti Associati in partnership with Coop Italia, is being brought to life through a collaboration between Accenture, Avanade, Intel and Microsoft.
While the Supermarket of the Future is clearly a forward-looking concept, it was inspired by the traditional, social shopping experiences that have existed for generations. It has adapted these traditional experiences using the Internet of Things (IoT) and cutting-edge technologies to create an open arena for interaction between consumers, shelves and products.
“The Coop Supermarket of the Future is a pioneering example of the shopping experience we’ll probably experience in three-to-five years’ time when entering the grocery store,” says Alberto Pozzi, managing director at Accenture. “Taking the innovative concept of the supermarket theorised by Carlo Ratti, Accenture has designed a user experience and leveraged the most appropriate digital solutions to satisfy – in a simple, natural and immediate way – the customer demand for information, socialisation and functionality.
“The Supermarket of the Future is a real-world example of how Accenture and our partners help our clients change the way we work and live through IoT and digital technologies. Accenture offers complete, integrated digital business, industry and technology services to deliver tangible results for both the digital consumer and digital enterprise.”
In order to achieve a natural experience, it was crucial to make sure shelving and digital screens didn’t get in the way of interaction between people. “The Supermarket of the Future merges the experience of a small local market where people used to have friendly, social exchanges, with that of the modern store, making for a much more personal experience,” says Fabio Chiodini, senior director of consumer products and retail at Avanade.
The project integrated Coop’s legacy infrastructure with a Microsoft Azure cloud content management system and a range of customer touchpoints using Windows 8 and Microsoft Kinect. Interactive tables enabled a rethinking of the traditional supermarket shelf, with new product displays to enable touch-free interaction – customers could simply hover their hand over a product to get real-time information about it.
“Every product has a story to tell, such as where and how it was produced, its carbon footprint, the chemical treatment it has received, information about allergens, and the journey that brought it to the shelf,” says Chiodini. “Shoppers can bring all that information to life simply by moving their hands and pointing at products. It enables a new, totally natural kind of buying experience in which data helps customers to be aware of what they are buying as soon as they consider the product.”
Some of the supermarket’s products were displayed on vertical shelves with touch technology, so customers could interact to receive more detailed information about the products displayed on a specific monitor. Second-screen technology enabled shoppers to interact with touch-based tablets on the meat and fish tables to access product information displayed on monitors. In addition, a mobile app created a personalised experience for customers, with content presented based on their lifestyle choices and real-time interaction with dedicated ranges of products, information and in-store locations.
Striking the balance between a high-tech vision and a more natural experience was one of the team’s greatest challenges – and the source of some of the project’s greatest innovations. “The main challenge was to create the most natural buying experience we could,” says Chiodini. “This was where Avanade was able to express its innovative soul, envisioning the use of a gaming device like Microsoft Kinect as a sensor for interactive shelves. Where additional capabilities were required, the Avanade team worked on designing and implementing a specific algorithm that captures where people are looking and projects their hand-movement towards the product indicated.”
Real-time data visualisation was also used to display information like customer interactions and purchases, and environmental key performance indicator analytics on a wall monitor about the store. The result was a supermarket that connected retailers, shoppers and products to ensure an exceptionally responsive environment.
“Using these technologies, the supermarket becomes connected,” says Chiodini. “The way that consumers interact with products provides data that can be transformed into tangible insights that help the grocer to optimise their offering and pricing, based on the items people interact with, what they put back on the shelf and what they buy. At the same time, it enables the business to capture product stock levels and ensure extremely timely replenishment. This helps the store to use smaller shelves, giving shoppers a sense of fresher, smaller batches of products and optimising supply management.”
Expo Milano 2015 has now ended, but the Coop Supermarket of the Future remains a very real example of what can be achieved. “New technologies are rapidly changing retail store operations, customer experiences, and defining new business models,” says Rachel Mushahwar, Global IOT Director – Retail Enabling, Intel Internet of Things. “This proliferation of devices and technology increases how customers engage with both brands and retailers, making shopping more informative and more enjoyable.
“Intel technology available today is already helping to transform stores into the digital retail environments of the future. Retailers can unlock the power of insights from in-store sensors that monitor temperature, light and inventory quantities; smart signs that anonymously track shopper activity; remote management tools that allow seamless control over displays in thousands of stores; and gateways that aggregate in-store data for long-term analysis and push real-time alerts back to the store to improve decision-making. Customers benefit from visual displays that inform shopping decisions and engage using touch and voice as well as tailored real-time coupons and promotions. With consumer expectations rapidly increasing, retailers have to leverage digital technology to create new shopping experiences for customers. But no matter what the connected store brings, one thing will never change – consumers and retailers need technology that is fast, simple, and just works.”
A modular, cloud-enabled architecture enables the concept to be applied across different sized stores to fit a range of retail formats from DIY to fashion. “Thanks to Accenture and Microsoft Azure, Avanade was able to implement the whole store infrastructure in the cloud in an incredibly short time, ensuring that it was easily manageable with a low total cost of ownership,” says Chiodini.
“Over 1.7 million visitors to the Coop Supermarket of the Future exhibit experienced how digital and IoT are game changers in enhancing the store shopping experience,” says Tracy Issel, general manager, worldwide retail industry at Microsoft. “The solution is the latest example of what Microsoft technology – in combination with the industry and IoT expertise, digital and cloud services, and specialised hardware of our partners Accenture, Avanade and Intel – can accomplish for our retail clients and their customers.”
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