How sensor-rich smart stores will make shopping a breeze

It's a Friday evening and you've decided to cook fish tacos. So you pop into your local supermarket on the way back from work. It takes several minutes just to hunt down the cilantro. Or, more accurately, to locate the empty shelf where the cilantro should have been. After another 10 minutes waiting in line for the single-staffed checkout lane, you finally get home to realize you forgot to buy tortillas. And that's how you end up spending your Friday night eating leftover casserole.

Data moves at almost the speed of light, but groceries don't. As the spread of high-speed internet renders information transmission ever-faster, the efficiency of the necessary physical transactions involved in buying and selling goods has lagged behind. That's about to change.

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“A lot of companies both big and small are working on using sensor technology and machine learning to improve the shopping experience ,” said Gustavo Martinez, a system engineer at our company. “Customers are frustrated by things like standing in a long checkout line, or finding out that they don't have the item they want, or that it's more expensive than somewhere else.”

A personal shopper in your pocket

The combination of machine learning and GPS technology already allows retailers to deliver personalized advertisements as a potential customer enters their vicinity. The next step is the use of in-store sensors, such as Bluetooth beacons, to deliver hyperlocal promotions at the level of the individual shelf.

These might trigger a custom notification on a smartphone—such as a half-price offer on vanilla wafers to the customer who will spend several minutes staring at the cookie aisle. Alternatively, replacing paper price tags with LCD displays will enable flexible offers to be displayed on the shelf itself, changing as different customers are approaching.

These smart displays can also guide a customer around a store, Gustavo said. “The store's app can plot out the most efficient route to pick up all the items in your list, and we can have the in-shelf displays light up as you approach to make it easy to locate the item that you're looking for."