REDMOND, Wash. ― Attention shoppers, new technology on aisle seven.
There were no audible announcements like that Monday morning at the QFC grocery store in the Seattle suburbs but the future of retail has definitely arrived at the sprawling store thanks to a new partnership between QFC and Fred Meyer parent Kroger and Microsoft.
Along with another in Monroe, Ohio, near Kroger HQ, the Bella Bottega store near Microsoft’s headquarters is part of a pilot program where smart shelves and handheld devices are being implemented to bring greater efficiency to grocery shopping, pricing, stocking and in-store advertising.
GeekWire walked the aisles and met with representatives from Kroger and QFC, and ran into a few shoppers on a sleepy Monday inside the store.
Although the new tech rolled out a few weeks ago, there hadn’t yet been a marketing push before Monday’s news announcement to make shoppers more aware of what they could be using to speed the process of getting their items and getting out. A small kiosk near the front of the store, labeled “Scan, Bag, Go,” is stocked with handheld devices. Shoppers have the option of connecting their QFC account to one of these or using the QFC app on their smartphone as a guide and scanning device throughout the store.
Many of the aisles located in the center portion of the store are outfitted with “enhanced display for grocery environment,” or EDGE, shelving. Unlike the old-school paper labels with price, savings and barcode, which have to be physically attached to the shelves by a human, the high-tech digital shelves offer the store the ability to push 20,000 price updates in just minutes.
Ryan Stephens, an EDGE delivery manager for Kroger, said the technology, which relies on Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform, translates to a 60 percent increase in productivity for workers tasked with price updates, stocking of shelfs and pulling orders for curbside pickup. A 4-hour window for grocery pickup, for instance, could be dramatically shortened because associates can pick orders much faster thanks to the tech.
The speed is most visible when a shopper calls up an item on her pre-determined shopping list and is guided to the exact aisle and shelf position of that item. As the shopper gets within range, of say, the jar of pasta sauce she’s shopping for, a food icon that she has selected as her “emoji” of choice appears on the EDGE shelf display — which is helpful when there are dozens of brands of pasta sauce on those shelves.
The shopper then scans the item’s barcode with a QFC device or personal smartphone, learns how much they might be saving, and adds the item to the cart. The next item appears on the list and so on.
A running total is kept as the shopper moves throughout the store, and there is the ability to remove items by re-scanning them. At the end of the shopping trip, the shopper proceeds to self checkout for a quick check by an associate and the shopper can pay via mobile device and leave the store.
The smart shelves will also target shoppers with specific ads, opening up a potential revenue stream for Kroger. Small cameras located in the end caps of aisles will monitor shopper behavior and watch how long they linger on specific ads or promotions.
Zach Stratton, with QFC corporate affairs, said that Kroger will watch the two pilot stores to determine how customers are reacting and responding to the technology, and how the technology is helping associates internally. This will help determine how quickly it might roll out to Kroger’s 2,800 retail food stores, which include Fred Meyer, QFC, Pick n Save, and other familiar grocery brands.
Regardless, shoppers are still welcome to ignore digital lists, devices and the shelving and shop however they like, Stratton said.
“If you still want to use our great cashiers that you’ve used for the past 20 years, great. It’s going to judge store by store,” he said. “We’re pretty digitally engaged here in Seattle, we’re in Microsoft’s backyard, this is a good one to try it. Other neighborhoods might be slower to catch on. That’s part of the pilot — who’s using it?”
QFC wasn’t exactly overflowing with technologically curious, get-in-and-get-out shoppers on Monday morning. An older gentleman near the back of the store didn’t want to pause long enough to share his name, but he did say he wasn’t interested in the new tech.
“This works good!” he said, holding up a sheet of paper with a dozen or so grocery items scrawled on it.
It’s hard to argue with the way people have been used to shopping forever, but Kroger and Microsoft are not alone as they target a new generation of shoppers with new options. Amazon has been increasingly showing the way, whether through its Amazon Go cashier-free convenience stores, or through the implementation of new tech in its Whole Food stores.
Mark and Kathy Sindelar of Redmond stopped in front of the QFC “Scan, Bag, Go” kiosk because they were curious after reading about the new initiative Monday morning. They do make online shopping lists and have used delivery services. But in store they were more interested in just browsing without any devices — they even left their phones in the car. Kathy said they were “comparison shoppers.”
Mark Sindelar said he worked briefly in the grocery business many years ago and has maintained an innate interest in marketing, arrangement and evolution of grocery stores.
“I’m a little concerned about this increasing tracking and invasion of privacy and I really don’t know how much I want them to know about everything I’m doing, looking at, buying, etc.,” he said, before admitting that as a Rewards member the store already knows what he’s buying.
Mark did like the idea that upon arriving at checkout he wouldn’t have to unpack all of his items again and go through the whole scanning process. But his wife asked the question many people do when it comes to technology and its arrival in traditional workspaces.
“Is another person just going to lose their job, though?” Kathy said.