Despite the rise in grocery deliveries and online shopping, the weekly shop remains a obstinate ever-present for most people. But will the advent of AI-powered product recommendations and automatic deliveries spell the end of this soul-sapping weekly ritual?
Grocery chains were pioneers in the collection of customer data. In the UK, both Tesco and Sainsbury's launched their own loyalty cards in the mid-90s to much fanfare, ostensibly as a way to reward loyal customers but, in reality, as a way to grab as much customer data as possible.
Long before concerns about big tech data grabs, UK supermarkets already knew exactly what customers were buying, when they were buying it and, as a consequence, what they weren’t buying. This data was then channeled into everything from marketing campaigns to shop layouts and targeted promotions to get people to spend even more.
Their enviable data troves were a precursor to the vast reams of customer information that online retailers routinely hoover up nowadays to calibrate their e-commerce operations and get customers to spend more of their hard-earned cash.
Rows of bananas piled high in a supermarket.
They’re also the exact sort of data sets that could be fed into machine learning algorithms to unlock even deeper consumer insights. With this long-held obsession with customer data, it’s hardly surprising that artificial intelligence (AI) is of significant interest to grocery chains.
In a data-rich industry, competitors who utilise customer information most effectively are going to come out on top and we’re already seeing a scramble for ascendancy.
Apps are at the vanguard of this new battle for insight and analysis with any brand worth its salt now putting their retail mobile strategy at the heart of their business plans. But some are going much further than just providing a slick ecommerce app for consumers.
From a standing start in 2002, online grocer Ocado has grown revenues to over £1.4bn after placing technology front and centre of its offering, while online grocery sales at Tesco have surpassed £4bn in recent years.
From product picking to user personalisation, AI is already threaded through the whole process of online grocery shopping, and soon it’ll be colonising the in-store experience too.
Changing consumer habits and lifestyles have already jeopardised the future of the big weekly shop, supplanted by quick trips for supplies or online deliveries at the customer’s convenience.
As AI becomes even more ingrained in the shopping process (and even in our homes) it’s likely the weekly shop will be put to bed entirely. Here’s how it might happen.
What you want, when you need it
Starship Technologies' semi-autonomous robots out in the wild. Photo by Starship Technologies
One of the core tenets of machine learning is that the more data you feed into a system and allow it to flex its algorithmic muscle, the better it gets. This is especially relevant with online shopping where years of customer data can help to build a detailed profile about a customer’s likes, dislikes and tastes.
Cross-reference that with other customer data and you can begin to make accurate guesses about what products a customer will enjoy. This is already happening with AI recommendation engines, a system which is only becoming even more honed as time goes on.
Now think of a future where, rather than actively browsing a grocer’s website, you’re passively served shopping lists compiled from personal data that has been crunched by AI. Delving into your shopping history the system would know what essentials you routinely purchase, when you last purchased them to calculate use by dates and sprinkle in contextual data such as the time of year or events on your calendar.
Got a dinner party coming up? The system would suggest potential meal options pulling data from the last time you had friends around. Don’t forget to throw in a loaf of bread, the algorithms will flag that you haven’t purchased one for a few days and it will likely be getting stale. And the temperature is going to dip next week, so how about the ingredients for a lentil soup to warm you up?
But what if the system also knew exactly what you’ve got at home and when it’s going to run out? Enter AI fridges.
Befriend your fridge
An AI-powered fridge might sound like a needless extravagance, but all the big manufacturers are throwing their weight behind the technology. LG has unveiled a fridge bearing a 29-inch touchscreen and Amazon Alexa integration, while Whirlpool has unveiled a fridge with virtual Amazon dash buttons.
When your fridge alerts you when items are going to go out of date or suggests recipes based on what’s housed within its chilly core, the prospect of an AI smart refrigerator no longer seems like such an extravagance. Rather, it’s a genuine convenience and one which has the potential to reduce the modern scourge of food wastage.
For the weekly food shop, the technology has the potential to change both what you’re buying and how you buy it. Cheese, tomatoes and eggs in your fridge? Why not order some chives and have an omelette on Saturday night? Not only that, but the fridge will order the chives for you. You’ve not had to think up a recipe or even leave the house for the ingredients.
AI is at the heart of all this with the potential for algorithms to both learn what you food you like, keep track of use by dates and analyse exactly which foods currently reside in your fridge.
Looking further ahead, smart fridges equipped with cameras and other sensors have the potential to even pick up on your moods and emotions. Like a cross between 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL and Gordon Ramsay, the fridge will suggest suitable foods depending on how you feel. Ideally without turning the air blue.
Combined with online grocery deliveries, smart fridges have the potential to eradicate trips to the grocery store entirely.
Cashierless, frictionless shopping
Despite prevailing fears about the death of the high street, e-commerce still only accounts for around $10 out of every $100 spent in the US, while in the UK online grocery shopping accounts for 7.5 percent of the total market at last count.
E-commerce will continue to squeeze brick and mortar stores, but the in-store experience clearly isn’t going anywhere soon, which is why some firms have begun looking at how AI can revitalise traditional grocery shopping.
As ever, Amazon is leading the way with AI grocery shopping following the launch of its Amazon Go grocery store in Seattle. Amazon Go’s vice president of technology, Dilip Kumar, said that the online retailer had spent years perfecting its machine learning and computer vision algorithms to ensure accuracy and reliability.
Speaking to Fast Company, he explained: “We have spent a lot of time figuring out how to make our algorithms and our sensors reliable, highly available, and very efficient so that you get things right and we’re very accurate.”
So confident is Amazon in the setup up they’ve developed that they have stated on record that there are no safeguards in place to protect against shoplifting. In fact, the Seattle giant hasn’t even developed a channel through which customers can report items that have not registered on their bill.
Although, who in their right mind would even attempt to steal from a store whose ceiling is cluttered with top spec cameras is anyone’s guess.
Amazon’s confidence demonstrates how advanced the technology is and hints that this is more than just a proof of concept─it’s a viable approach that could feasibly have a wider roll-out.
AI is the beating heart of US giant’s “Just Walk Out” grocery concept with the army of cameras constantly monitoring the store and able to determine which customers have picked up which items from its video feeds thanks to AI algorithms.
Unlike the other innovations explored here, the Amazon Go store is less the eradication of grocery shopping than the absolute transformation of the ritual itself. Gone are the long lines and cashiers, replaced with QR codes for shoppers to check in with using the Amazon Go app. Gone too are infuriating self-checkout machines, you just grab your items and walk out.
Kinks still remain that need to be ironed out. Currently, the store can only support a maximum of 97 patrons at a time due to the current limitations of the tech, although this is likely to improve in future. Alcohol purchases still require a human employee to ID shoppers so the experience isn’t entirely frictionless.
As a glimpse into the future, the store is a thrilling exploration of the possibilities of AI within an in-store context and carries a sense of wonder that all great technological leaps have. Once that wonder dissipates we’ll know that the technology has truly arrived.
Our changing shopping habits, from offline to online and from one big shop to a string of smaller visits, are being accelerated by AI. Our clamour for convenience will be both sated and intensified as algorithms sink their tentacles into ever-more aspects of the shopping experience.
Will all this finally kill off the weekly shop? It’s hard to say. Maybe the title of this post is a little bit hyperbolic, but fundamental change in the sector is underway and what’s clear is that our shopping habits are undergoing major shifts owing to our modern lifestyles and technology.
The simple fact of the matter is that people will always favour convenience. And AI is poised to provide trolley loads of it.