Japan is so keen to move away from cash it's offering consumers a discount for digital payments. That's an opportunity for NZ's IMAGR. (Photo: Getty.)

NZ on the grab-and-go back foot as Japan grabs our cashierless technology

In their quest for a cashless society the Japanese have beaten New Zealand to its own next-gen shopping experience.

New Zealanders are missing out to the Japanese on a Kiwi technology that is set to eliminate supermarket queues.

The first store to implement the SmartCart cashierless shopping system will be in Osaka, not Auckland, despite last year’s much publicised trial of the tech at the Four Square store in Ellerslie.

Instead the inaugural customer for SmartCart is Japanese corporate H20 Retailing which will start installing SmartCart’s intelligent shopping trolleys in its 80 supermarkets from early next year.

SmartCart is the brainchild of Auckland-based startup IMAGR. Cameras on the carts use computer vision and AI to detect what shoppers put in their trolleys and automatically ring the items up. It means there’s no need for checkout queues, human operators, or frustrating self-service terminals.

The ‘grab and go’ shopping revolution is gathering pace, with a range of new technologies being tried such as Amazon Go’s system of cameras on the ceilings of stores to track shoppers’ movements. But IMAGR founder William Chomley is convinced intelligent trolley systems like SmartCart are the way the global retail industry will eventually go.

At the time of the Ellerslie trial, Foodstuffs NZ which operates the Four Square, Pakn’Save and New World stores said bricks and mortar retailers must embrace AI to enhance consumer experience and the SmartCart project would take its offering to the next level.

However the supermarket co-operative has decided not to proceed with the technology. Head of corporate affairs Antoinette Laird says it is going in a different direction, including trialling systems such as its Shop’nGo hand-held scanners which let customers check out goods as they shop and pay at the end.

“Self-checkouts, AI and automated shopping are interesting and it’s definitely an emerging area for customers looking for a light touch for their shopping experience. Shop’nGo has been implemented in a number of our stores and is already showing fantastic results – customers love the way it enables them to keep a close eye on their expenditure and stick to their household budget,” Laird says.

Imagr’s William Chomley (L) and Foodstuff CIO Peter Muggleston. After the high profile Four Square trial the company is not going ahead with SmartCart. (Photo: supplied.)

IMAGR is disappointed Foodstuffs didn’t grab and go with the cashierless’ baton, but it is in talks with rival retailers as well as European and US multinationals and hopes to announce another deal shortly. “Of course you want a home town win, and we’re confident we’ll still have one of those,” Chomley says.

What the Ellerslie Four Square trial did do is validate that it’s on the right path, he says. Unlike the Amazon Go system which is intrusive and expensive to implement, SmartCart is low impact. “Retailers are already comfortable buying trolleys and supermarket baskets. We’re not asking them to retrofit millions of dollars worth of cameras.”

Customers are also already used to shopping with a basket or trolley so it doesn’t require them to change their behaviour either. And he predicts they will start getting a bit “iffy” about retail systems that use facial recognition to track them while they do the weekly grocery shop.

Japan is a market that’s walking towards IMAGR, Chomley says. With its large elderly population that still insists on using cash and its shrinking workforce, Japanese officials and corporates are on a mission to move shoppers towards digital payment methods. Currently only around 20% of payments made in Japan are cashless, and the country plans to double that within the next eight years. It also wants to avoid the embarrassment of visitors arriving for next year’s Tokyo Olympics only to discover many food retailers, restaurants and hotels only accept cash.

To encourage the shift Japanese consumers are being offered a temporary 2% to 5% discount if they pay by credit card, debit card or smartphone.

This environment presents a huge opportunity for SmartCart, Chomley says. IMAGR is in the process of opening a Japanese office and employing staff. “There’s no competition there for us, right now everyone’s too busy focused on the US.”

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