CHICAGO -- Imagine a future in which robots assist customers in grocery stores, retailers know what you want to buy the second you walk through the door, gas pumps fill your car autonomously, and cars that run on electricity charge themselves while moving.
This future might sound too good to be true, but most of these technological advancements are already being tested in the field, and those that aren’t, are on their way soon.
Some of these examples are outside the United States, but they reflect challenges faced by retailers here, including personalization and streamlining the process of pumping fuel.
Here are four examples of over-the-top tech that could one day change the face of convenience-store retailing …
The Giant Food Store in Lower Paxton Township, Pa., has a new employee. He’s a little different than the others.
According to local online news source pennlive.com, the grocery store recently brought on a robot—known locally as Marty—that looks like a gray monolith on wheels. The store has plastered a nametag and googley-eyes on the machine, likely to make it look friendlier.
For now, Marty’s most important job is to trundle up and down the aisles to scan for trip or slip hazards on the floor, but he also has secondary functions. Marty can read unit tags to tell if items are out of stock on the shelves and notify his human co-workers to restock. He can also check prices.
The robot is part of a test program from Ahold USA, Giant Food Stores’ parent company. The technology was developed by Badger Technologies in Lexington, Ky.
Marty isn’t smart enough to replace any human employees, but he could be a sign of things to come if the test goes well.
We know just what you need
EBay has opened a pop-up concept in London that literally gets in customers’ heads. The company named the concept The Art of Shopping, but it is all about the science behind customer preferences.
Customers are given a headband by a scientist and then led into a gallery space with 10 pieces of modern artwork curated by Saatchi Art, an international online art gallery. EBay uses the headband to find out which pieces of art visitors are emotionally attached to. It then suggests a list of products based on how much time the subject spends looking at the art and their emotional state at the time.
The pop-up’s stated goal is to make visitors more aware of the reasoning and emotions behind their shopping behavior, but it also has huge implications for personalization in retail. At least, as long as consumers are comfortable with companies reading their minds.
Lending a hand
While Amazon is still working out the kinks in its smart c-store concept Amazon Go, its Chinese rival Alibaba has already experimented with a smart c-store open to the public. Now, the company is moving on to its next automated retail center: gas stations.
Alibaba will build an unstaffed gas station in its home city of Hanzhou, China, where a robotic arm will fuel vehicles, according to online Chinese news source Caixin. The gas station will include a smart convenience store based on its already-tested retail model.
The company plans to launch a more personalized version of the gas station next year. The newer model will reportedly examine and recognize information about the driver and his vehicle, including the driver’s identity, the car model and fuel product type.
Range anxiety, go away
Electric vehicles (EVs) are a hot topic right now, attracting competition from unexpected sources, including vacuum maker Dyson. Now Amazon could also be building its own stake in the EV ecosystem.
The U.S. Patent Office recently granted Amazon a patent for drones that can connect to EVs and charge them during a drive. Similar to planes refueling in midflight, this charging drone could hypothetically attach to an EV’s roof or door and charge the vehicle while it is on the move.
Currently, large sections of the country do not contain EV charging sites, but Amazon has presented a potential solution that could do away with range anxiety—fear of running out of fuel on a long drive—without building EV charging sites across the country.
This raises plenty of questions. How would paying for this service work? Would it be a part of the Amazon Prime package? Which EVs would be compatible with the drone? And perhaps most importantly for c-stores, if EVs will be able to charge on the road, what does that mean for gas stations looking to offer electric charging?