The next time that you are at a grocery store in the US, don’t be surprised if your shopping cart wants to chat. It may have suggestions for dinner, or lead you to buy an extra roll of paper towels because they’re on sale. It might even map out the most efficient route around the store so you can grab your stuff quickly and hit the check-out counters.
Across the country, at grocers like Kroger and Albertsons, shoppers are being greeted by a new fleet of souped-up smart carts that promise to merge your online and IRL experiences.
While the idea isn’t necessarily new to the retail sector, it’s taking on a new significance. Three years after the pandemic spread globally, retailers are looking for ways to keep up with our shifting shopping habits. More than ever, we’re accustomed to reaching for our phones to browse, compare prices and buy what we need. On top of new preferences, American grocers are also trying to fill labour gaps and maximize sales in an industry notorious for its slim margins.
Grocers have experimented with digital price tags, self check-out kiosks and online grocery delivery. So far, the trusty old shopping cart is one piece of the shopping journey that has by and large remained the same. Which begs the question; do they need an expensive upgrade? With an increasingly fickle consumer and technology advancing at lightning speed, smart shopping carts—for all the promises they come loaded with—are shaping up as more a novelty than a necessity.
But first to the promise that convinced grocers from northeastern chain Wegmans Food Markets to the midwest’s Schnuck Markets, and Krogers to test out new fleets of smart carts: catching up with the tech wizardry of Amazon.com. While they’re expensive, David McIntosh, a vice president with Instacart, tells me that investing in shopping carts is cheaper than overhauling a whole store with computer vision so it can operate like an Amazon Go store. Instacart’s Caper cart uses computer vision to track and tally up items shoppers place in their carts. It can also suggest recipes based on the products you add to your basket. And once you’re done with your shopping, a built-in tablet helps you check out immediately.
Smart carts also offer retailers a data advantage, says Shariq Siddiqui, co-founder and chief executive officer of Veeve. The company’s carts, which you’ll see in Kroger and Albertsons stores, can gather data from shoppers as they walk around. Whether or not they log into a Veeve tablet attached to the cart, the device collects information on how shoppers move through the store, what items they put in their basket and which items need to be replenished on shelves. It also serves up personalized ads and coupons to shoppers who log in to the device. With all that, Veeve’s technology increases cart sizes by about 70% to 80% compared to when a shopper goes through self checkout, according to Siddiqui.
Carts like these reportedly cost anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000, dwarfing the humble $100 carts of old. Instacart and Veeve declined to disclose how much theirs cost, though executives at the companies tout the payback in terms of increased spends as well as the less tangible ease it brings to the experience. Veeve expects to have about 1,600 carts deployed by year-end from just 160 today.
But, of course, the carts can only be effective when people use them, something even Amazon has struggled with. Recently, the tech giant decided to close eight Amazon Go stores known for their Just Walk Out technology. It’s unclear why the stores were closed, but the move does underscore the risks involved.
We’re literally saturated with technology these days, and shoppers tire quickly of fancy new gadgets that don’t really solve a problem. Technology alone won’t prompt you to pick up a bottle of kombucha and kettle cooked chips at an Amazon Go if you can get the same thing at a convenience store closer to the office or on your way to catch a train to work.
Shopping carts have survived with almost no change for decades because they have stayed in the realm of the simple and utilitarian. How much technology is really needed to improve upon one of the few artefacts of analogue shopping that are still around?
As people’s habits evolve in an increasingly digitized world, perhaps the trusty shopping cart must too. There may be a day when some iteration of the cart does my shopping for me while I sip an Americano by the in-store coffee bar. For now though, it’s a novelty I’d just as easily pass on—particularly if part of the promise is spending more than I planned on each trip to the grocery store.