Automation Meets Convenience Store: Micro Markets and Drive-Up Shops

With much of the population aiming to reduce person-to-person interactions, consumers still need to shop, at least for groceries. Once considered novel showcases for technology innovation, stores that use IoT are gaining popularity in a frictionless world.


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Image credit: Shekel Brainweigh

The rise of intelligent vending technology is fast-tracking interest in pop-up stores. As customers opt for quick, frictionless shopping experiences, smart stores are a viable alternative for consumers who want to make a quick grocery store--or even a department store--excursion. Smart stores make use of intelligent vending and other IoT technologies, but they offer more options.

Smart vending machines are already gaining popularity because they simplify vending purchases. They also enable the shift from shelf-stable snacks to the freshly made healthier foods that customers are demanding. Smart vending machines also provide vendors with real-time information about product purchases, restocking, and maintenance to maximize efficient operations and, in turn, profitability.

For now, most innovation is centered around improving the experience for grocery store shoppers. In an era when people are limiting their time indoors, micro markets are popping up to make fast work of buying groceries. These autonomous stores allow registered customers to use a credit card or contactless payment option to enter and shop. They rely on LiDAR, machine learning, and advanced smart shelf technology to determine which products customers select—and put back—before checking out, which is handled automatically.

The AI-Enabled Store

The Amazon Go stores are the most well-known example of this, but more traditional stores are beginning to install autonomous micro markets within their larger retail spaces to attract customers.

Shekel Brainweigh has designed a smart Micro Market Capsule that can be used as a standalone store or inside a larger retail footprint. The Micro Market Capsule uses the company’s Product Aware smart shelf technology in bays and Innovendi enclosures (similar to a refrigerated cooler at a grocery store), so customers can shop at any time without requiring human interaction.

Image credit: SmartMart

Customers present an ID or credit card to enter. Capsule relies on LiDAR technology—not cameras—to identify shoppers to protect privacy, and the sensor technology in the Product Aware shelves detects the items selected. Items are tracked and tallied for purchase as the customer exits. Artificial intelligence records customer transactions and sends the data to the machine operator in real time. Shekel Brainweigh uses predictive analytics, sensors, measurement tools, and other technologies to identify products, positioning, selection, replenishment, and pricing.

The Drive-Up Shop Option

A different approach is the automated SmartMart, found in Memphis, TN. Customers drive up to one of four shopping ports, select items from a screen, and pay with cash or credit card. The shopping ports have cameras and are monitored remotely 24/7 by staff who can see the customer ordering, provide help, and validate IDs for purchases of age-restricted products, such as beer or cigarettes. The store can offer 2,800 different SKUs in an enclosure that looks a bit like a shipping container, says Ashlee Rivalto, SmartMart’s chief operating officer.

All customer selections are retrieved via picking equipment and placed on a conveyor belt—heaviest items first—to be bagged by the customer. Product inventory profiles allow the operator to track products, schedule promotions, and monitor expiration dates. SmartMart uses a proprietary customer interface and cloud-based system that tracks transactions on the customer side and the back office.

“We can see, in real-time, our inventory, and we don’t have to worry about what it looks like on the shelf. We can virtually monitor everything,” Rivalto says. “We have an Android app that is cloud-based that tracks inventory information. We can look at the expiration date and run promotions for products, The solution tracks the inventory in the store and the back stock.”

SmartMart’s proprietary software also allows the store to analyze product movement with a high degree of accuracy, because no errors are introduced by cashiers ringing up the wrong product. The no-contact model also cuts overhead by about 70 percent, supplies by 6 percent, and equipment repairs by about 10 percent compared to traditional convenience stores, Rivalto says, citing a 2019 report by the National Association of Convenience Stores. 

The current store is the third iteration since SmartMart opened for business in 2003. In 2021, the 4th generation store will open. It will support mobile and online ordering. The fifth generation will be a manufactured store and will allow the company to franchise the SmartMart model. “We’ve had a lot of interest, especially since COVID,” Rivalto says.

  • Learn more about the Shekel Brainweigh Micro Market Capsule.
  • Find out more about the SmartMart technology. 
  • Listen to our IoT Integrator Wire retail podcast with Joe Jensen, vice president in the Internet of Things (IoT) Group and general manager of the Retail, Banking, Hospitality and Education Group at Intel. Jensen describes how smart IoT technology such as motion sensors and gesture recognition tools provide a safe, contactless buying experience.


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