Couche-Tard Launches Retail Innovation Lab

Retailer partners with McGill University for innovation
Innovation Lab
Photograph courtesy of Alimentation Couche-Tard

MONTREAL McGill University and Alimentation Couche-Tard are partnering in the launch of a retail innovation lab at the Bensadoun School of Retail Management—a live testing ground for innovative and frictionless technologies that address the future of retail.

Located on McGill University's downtown campus, the lab is currently open at reduced hours and allows for a limited number of customers in the store until local public health authorities deem it safe to operate at full capacity.

"By combining artificial intelligence and retail management, this retail innovation lab at the Bensadoun School of Retail Management will allow our researchers to develop new initiatives and technologies to improve the customer experience for the retail sector with the help of industry partners," said Professor Morty Yalovsky, dean of McGill's Desautels faculty of management. "We are excited to welcome one of Canada's largest retailers, Alimentation Couche-Tard, as the first industry partner of our lab to help shape the future of retail during this pivotal moment in history."

"This new store on the McGill University campus is a unique demonstration of our commitment to find new ways to make our customers' lives a little easier," said Deborah Hall Lefevre, chief technology officer for Couche-Tard. "At Couche-Tard, we are always searching for innovative solutions that improve the experience for our customers in our stores. By having a live laboratory, we are confident that the research projects and technologies successfully tested at the lab may eventually be implemented in some of our 14,220 stores across our global network."

Inside the lab, a Couche-Tard Connecté section is designed with frictionless technologies to allow autonomous and contactless checkout. Using an app, customers can unlock the door to walk into the Connecté section, pick up items and leave. The system recognizes the items selected in real-time, and it processes payment automatically in the app.

A first in Canada's convenience store sector, the frictionless store will allow Couche-Tard store team members to spend more time on duties other than checkout.

Two research directors at McGill lead the lab: Professor Maxime Cohen of the Desautels faculty of management and Professor James Clark of the faculty of engineering. Governed by a joint steering committee, preliminary research themes will involve helping customers make healthier, more sustainable choices and finding the right balance between personalization and privacy in the shopping experience. Researchers will use artificial intelligence (AI), while ensuring stringent data privacy and confidentiality protocols, to improve demand forecasting and customer recommendations, as well as virtual reality to make it easier for customers to find what they are looking for.

"COVID-19 will continue to have a significant impact on retailers, especially with regards to the traditional in-person customer experience," said Professor Saibal Ray, academic director of the Bensadoun School of Retail Management. "As society progresses into our 'new normal' of physical distancing, it is increasingly important for researchers and students to study the evolving shopping experience of the future."

In this global pandemic context, the frictionless technologies in the laboratory store on the McGill University campus can potentially provide a safer way for people to purchase daily essentials.

The lab is funded by the Bensadoun Family Foundation and Bensadoun School of Retail Management Founders Circle, of which Alain Bouchard, founder and chairman of Couche-Tard, is a member.

Founded in Montreal in 1821, McGill is a Canadian post-secondary institution with 300 programs of study and more than 40,000 students. Opened in 2018 after a donation by the Bensadoun Family Foundation, McGill's Bensadoun School of Retail Management was created to educate and empower a global network of interdisciplinary thinkers and practitioners who research, envision and prototype a dynamic and successful world of retail. The Bensadoun School is working to be the best source of talent and ideas for a retail industry that enables sustainable consumption and healthier societies.

Laval, Quebec-based Couche-Tard—which is No. 2 on CSP’s 2020 Top 202 ranking of U.S. c-store chains by size—consists of a network of approximately 9,275 c-stores in North America, primarily under the Circle K brand. It also operates a retail network in Scandinavia, Ireland, Poland, the Baltics and Russia that includes more than 2,700 stores and unmanned automated fuel stations. And under licensing agreements, close to 2,350 stores operate under the Circle K banner in 15 other countries and territories (Cambodia, Egypt, Guam, Guatemala, Honduras, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Jamaica, Macau, Mexico, Mongolia, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Vietnam), which brings Couche-Tard’s worldwide total network to more than 14,300 stores.

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