5 Grocers Embracing Technology Around the Globe

By Jessica Dumont

From the sunny shores of Florida to the heart of urban Tel Aviv, grocers worldwide face the same challenge: How to win with technology.

Over the past few years, companies have turned to eye-grabbing innovations to save customers time and create a more intimate, service-driven shopping experience, said Jamie Sabat, director of trends and consumer forecasting for Streetsense. Shoppers have started to expect more from their grocery stores, from personalized recommendations to health information. 

“Technology is one of those things that we look at as a tool … for us to save the consumer time, create more intimacy and provide more transparency and information,” Sabat said.

For all the flash and promise new technologies hold, however, they do not guarantee additional traffic and customer loyalty. Here’s a closer look at five global grocers that are embracing technology to not only meet but also get ahead of consumer demand.

Brazil: Carrefour Brasil

Though Carrefour operates internationally, it is the market leader in Brazil, where it operates supermarkets, hypermarkets and convenience stores. 

Carrefour Brasil is speeding up grocery delivery times in 12 cities, offering shoppers “express” delivery in about 35 minutes and “supermarkets” delivery in an hour, according to a company case study. Carrefour has partnered with delivery app Rappi for the service, which has personal shoppers picking and fulfilling customer orders. Customers can communicate with personal shoppers in real time, and can also get photos of their items in order to to evaluate them and request replacements if they wish. With Rappi, Carrefour will also open 15 dark stores in nine cities throughout Brazil that will be built in existing supermarkets and hypermarkets. 

The grocer is also taking the shopping experience to the next level with simple payment and checkout processes. According to Retail Innovation Watch, a report from CBRE and Streetsense, Carrefour’s first smart supermarket in Shanghai allows shoppers to pay using WeChat, which is enabled through a combination of image recognition and retina scanning. 

“It’s once again that speedy checkout. You’re able to scan items quickly and just move throughout the store,” Sabat said.

In Brazil, Carrefour has partnered with Brazilian convenience store Zaitt to open Latin America’s first fully autonomous, 24-hour convenience store that uses scan-and-go technology or radio frequency identification to offer a more frictionless experience.  

China: 7Fresh 

E-commerce giant’s 7Fresh is a hotbed of futuristic technology. Smart carts follow shoppers around so they can shop hands-free, and magic mirror technology displays information about products, such nutritional data and place of origin. Facial recognition speeds up checkout, and customers can place their orders in-store and have them delivered directly to their homes.

The first 7Fresh location opened in Beijing in 2018. According to a report from Euromonitor International, the store offers fresh food, cooked-to-order meals and grab-and-go foods. When it launched, 7Fresh promised 30-minute grocery delivery within three kilometers of the store.    

Bob Hoyler, senior research analyst at Euromonitor International, said 7Fresh is more of a premium retailer, and as a result, the company is quick to embrace new innovations. The technology and premium positioning makes it slightly more expensive than other supermarkets in China, Hoyler said, which could hinder the banner’s growth. 7Fresh hasn’t seen as much repeat traffic as expected, and its initial plans for 500 stores in five years hasn’t been mentioned recently. 

“7Fresh is at the forefront of technological innovation in the grocery space. But, that alone doesn’t mean that they are winning the battle for consumers,” Hoyler said. “And I think the important takeaway here is that without technology offering something to consumers where there’s a tangible benefit to consumers, that alone may not draw them to your store.”

Israel: Osher Ad

It’s no secret that checkout lines are among the biggest headaches for shoppers, and Israeli supermarket chain Osher Ad has set out to eliminate them. The retailer, which was founded in 2009 and operates 18 stores in the country, uses technology from startup Supersmart to provide a checkout-free experience for shoppers. 

Using an app, Osher Ad customers can scan products in their cart. Before exiting, customers roll their cart beneath an automated scanner that audits the purchase in just two to three seconds. 

While the technology may be innovative, Hoyler told Grocery Dive that his colleagues in Israel say it has yet to catch on with shoppers. That could be due to the supermarket’s fairly conservative customer base, he said, but it’s important for retailers to closely track adoption if they’re considering offering a checkout-free experience.  

“I think that is a common refrain, that scan-and-go technology isn’t quite as convenient as it’s made out to be,” Hoyler said, though he expects the technology will continue to get better and customers will start to find it more useful. He also thinks image recognition could take the place of scan-and-go in the future. 

Osher Ad, which is an investor in Supersmart, first piloted the technology in 2016. The grocer has also opened two stores in the U.S. that offer the same checkout-free experience. 

The Netherlands: Albert Heijn

In the Netherlands, Dutch supermarket chain Albert Heijn is on a mission to reduce the amount of time a customer spends in its AH to Go stores from an average of three minutes to 20 seconds. 

Similar to Amazon Go in the U.S., these stores have no cashiers, no lines and don’t require cash or debit cards to pay. Using the AH to Go app or “Tap to go” card, customers just scan an electronic shelf tag when they pick up a product. 

Albert Heijn, which is owned by Ahold Delhaize, piloted the first tap-to-go store in 2017 and opened three more last September. The company said it has plans for national expansion of the concept. Albert Heijn also recently opened a 150-square foot automated mini-store on its corporate campus in Zaandam.

Ahold Delhaize hasn’t announced plans to bring tap-and-go to the U.S., but the company has been vigilant about expanding technology and improving its operations here, from adding store pickup across banners to using artificial intelligence for distribution. Stewart Samuel, program director in Canada for retail analysis firm IGD​, noted that Ahold Delhaize was also among the first to launch grocery e-commerce in the U.S. through Peapod, and that the U.S. could leverage innovations from Europe, where grocery innovation is farther ahead. 

Canada: Sobeys 

Because of Canada’s large land mass and low population density, grocery technology hasn’t taken off in the country the way it has in other places. But Canadian supermarket Sobeys is hard at work delivering a more modern experience for shoppers. According to Samuel, Sobeys is in the third year of a successful three-year turnaround program.

Samuel said Sobeys already has an e-commerce arm in Quebec operating under the IGA banner that’s been in place for several years. But a new partnership with Ocado will allow the grocer to enter the Ontario market with an e-commerce solution. Sobeys’ new e-commerce service is called Voilà, and it will serve the greater Toronto area as well as major cities throughout Quebec. The first of two Ocado fulfillment centers is being constructed in Vaughn, Ontario, and is slated to be in operation next spring. 

Samuel said that with Loblaws and Walmart making major e-commerce progress in the country, Sobeys will have to see whether or not its efforts with Ocado help it catch up and win customers. 

“The market is still relatively small, so there [are] enough potential customers up for grabs without having to take customers from other retailers,” Samuel said. “They’ve got some good initial branding with the service they’ve announced. It’s definitely going to be one to watch because no one’s done anything like that in this market in terms of having an automated fulfillment solution.” 

Honorable Mentions

Innovation abroad isn’t unique to these five grocers. In South Korea, Sabat said, Tesco has installed automated panels in subways so that commuters can grocery shop during their rides home. She also noted that Bae Min Fresh, also in South Korea, provides prepared meal delivery, which has been hugely successful with women in their 20s and 30s. 

Lojas Americanas, another Brazilian retailer, recently partnered with Zippin to establish checkout-free stores under its Ame Go banner across the country. The first is operating in Rio de Janeiro, with another opening soon in Sao Paulo.  

Customer interest in these innovations varies by retailer, geography, demographics and population density, sources said. But there’s no question that grocers are focused on piloting new technology all over the world to draw customers into stores and strengthen their online experience. 

“Because the consumer is asking more of retailers and of grocers, they’re finding more ways to automate,” Sabat said.

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