In 1937, two decades after founding his first Piggly Wiggly, supermarket entrepreneur Clarence Saunders opened Keedoozle, a "fully-automated grocery store." Groceries were offered at a steep discount and sample items were displayed in glass cabinets.
"To purchase, the customer will insert a key in a hole in the showcase beside the sample article, press a button," TIME Magazine reported at the time. "In the stockroom the proper article will drop on a conveyor belt leading to the cashier's desk. Simultaneously the purchase price is recorded on an adding machine. After all purchases are made, the customer sticks his key into the adding machine, gets his bill. Using another key, the cashier releases the purchases all wrapped for the customer."
The idea was an ambitious one, but the three Keedoozle locations failed to last even a year. The mechanical technology was not capable of handling the high traffic loads and customers began to flock back to groceries staffed by a team of humans. Since then, supermarkets have flirted on and off with new technology to further automate the grocery shopping experience; for instance, by 2025, it is predicted that 1.2 million units will be installed worldwide.
But over the last year — as more and more Americans looked for alternatives to traditional grocery shopping amid the novel coronavirus pandemic — there's been an uptick in the development and popularity of supermarket services that utilize artificial intelligence.
Lindon Gao is the chief executive officer of Caper, a technology company that created the Caper Cart, the "world's first AI-powered shopping cart." Originally launched in 2019 at the New York-based supermarket Foodcellar & Co., the Caper Cart looks like a typical shopping cart. However as customers place items in the basket, they are weighed, measured and priced; additionally, a screen affixed to the cart offers shoppers basket-based recommendations and nearby deals.
For instance, if I've placed tortillas, queso fresco and salsa in my cart, the screen may recommend that I venture over to the produce aisle to snag some avocados, which are on sale.
"I've always shopped for groceries once a week with my family," Gao said. "And if you look at how grocery stores were 100 years ago versus today, it's virtually the same act. Given the emergence of automation across every single industry, I think grocery retail is long overdue for a positive injection of automation."
Gao explained that the design of the Caper Cart is actually pretty simple. There are four high-powered cameras on each corner of the cart and pad in the base of the basket to weigh items. The items are then logged on the on-camera computer, which customers can also use to pay.
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"Caper brings at least two major benefits for the shopper as well," Gao said. "Number one, you get to bypass the lines and it's just more convenient. The second part is that Caper has the ability to interface with customers at the shop, so based on what you have put inside the basket and where you are in the store, it will give you tailored recommendations to make your shopping journey a lot smarter."
Caper provides an obvious benefit for supermarket owners and managers, as well. Retailers have an opportunity to observe shopper behavior in more detail, especially as Caper is able to extract data from the carts and provide them to stores so that they can optimize their inventory holdings.
When asked if Gao — or Caper, as a whole — had received any pushback from consumers or retailers who were concerned about the concept of artificial intelligence becoming a part of their supermarket experience (despite the fact that AI is an ever-growing part of both the online shopping experience and our lives), he said that it's not been an issue.
"The consumers are receptive if we build a good product, and I think that's the most important thing," he said. "Maybe five years ago, when people were less familiar [with AI] they would have been a lot less receptive, but now it's more common."
He continued: "One of our mottos is 'Make shopping magic' and with technology and AI, that's what we have been able to build."
The intersection between grocery shopping and artificial intelligence technology is also picking up outside the supermarket aisles, especially as the pandemic inspired home cooks to look for alternatives to in-person shopping. For instance, in late 2020, Kroger launched Chef Bot, an AI-powered Twitter recipe tool "that helps users' pair the groceries in their fridge and reduce food waste by providing mealtime inspiration and personalized recommendations."
Users simply snap a photo of three ingredients from their refrigerator or pantry. Users then tweet their photo to @KrogerChefbot. Through artificial intelligence, Chefbot identifies ingredients and then provides users with a list of personalized recipe recommendations based on the selected ingredients.
"Chefbot illustrates how marketers can tap into augmented intelligence to deliver true service and value," said Menno Kluin, the chief creative officer of 360i, in a press release. "Innovation often happens during times of seismic change. By leveraging visual AI in a bold new way, Kroger is bringing their promise of 'Fresh for Everyone' to life while addressing pain points and helping shoppers maximize their purchases."
Another company that saw an increase in interest during the pandemic was Hungryroot, a personalized virtual grocery service that uses machine learning and predictive modeling to build grocery lists based on user preferences. The service gets to know users by having them complete a quiz about their typical buying patterns and their eating preferences, like whether they are vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free.
Hungryroot then compiles a personalized shopping list and, from there, users can add or subtract items. The order is then shipped directly to their doorsteps.
According to Dave Kong, Hungryroot's chief technology officer, most of their customers don't change the list recommended by the service.
"In fact, 72%, they don't change it," Kong said. "Now, for the few who do have some kind of special preference for other items, as they change it, our technology notes that. It learns from your habits and how you're editing, and that's then taken into account for your next box and the next box."
According to Michael Ruhlman, the author of "Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America," while it may seem like the grocery shopping experience has remained stagnant for decades — and in many ways it has — we as a country moved relatively rapidly from the days of the neighborhood grocer to those of the big-box supermarket.
"One of the big things was the creation of Piggly Wiggly in 1916, which did something that no other store had done before," Ruhlman said. "Which was to have customers pick out their own food. That was one thing. The second was the introduction of the first real supermarket, King Kullen, which brought all the different categories — greengrocer, dairy, meat — all into one store and that was in 1930."
According to Ruhlman, many of the changes in the business of grocery selling are sparked by innovations in the world of technology — like the invention of the cardboard boxes, tin cans, wire-woven grocery baskets and, more recently, the temperature-controlled Amazon lockers at Whole Foods.
"Interestingly, Piggly Wiggly, because they were letting shoppers do their own picking, they had to create a shopping cart that people could roll around and about 20 years after they started, a nesting shopping cart changed the way we shop for food," he said. "So, I like the way that non-food products alter the way that we buy our food. AI is just the latest iteration."