In pictures: Italian Coop offers glimpse of grocery's future

Over the years there have been multiple 'store of the future' concepts envisioned at retail exhibitions and in dedicated innovation labs run by retailers and vendors alike, but the Italian Coop's Supermarket of the Future resides in what is being portrayed as one of Europe's first smart cities.

Coop's notion of the grocery shopping experience of the future is being showcased at Expo 2015, which runs in north-west Milan between 1 May and 31 October. Visitors to the vast international event – which is being supported by around 145 countries around the world, all of whom are running their own substantially-sized and individually-designed pavilions – can experience the new shopping experience for themselves, making use of the interactive tables, vertical shelving, digital displays and real-time shopping data that greets people as they wander the aisles.

Management consultancy and technology services company Accenture, which has supported Coop in the creation of its new shopping concept and is an official infrastructure partner for Expo 2015 itself, has worked with various vendors to bring the store to life, forming part of a wider Future Food District area within the exhibition.

Essential Retail was given a guided tour of the Coop's future-gazing project, and the two burning subsequent questions revolve around the retailer's motivation for the project and how it will turn some of the concepts into a reality for its customers?

Coop CIO Gabriele Tubertini said the store is based on the idea of harnessing technology "to recreate the social environment of a food market of the middle ages".

"The automated warehouse located under the shop floor to store the products closer to the place where they have to be replenished enables the possibility of using low tables and shelves instead of the customary high racks," he added.

"Hence the view of the visitors is free from obstacles enabling them to stare into each other's eyes." The store has also provided "a unique opportunity to deal with new technology", with Tubertini saying the company is evaluating how to leverage the Expo experience in its existing store network.

But what is the new retail technology on show?

Interactive tables

Accenture's innovation team created interactive tables, which hold a range of products. A simple movement of the hand towards an item will prompt the raised digital monitors to show product information such as its origins, traceability, the presence of allergens or its carbon footprint.

Kinect sensors help shoppers access digital product information just by pointing to the item in question

For example, a customer only has to hover their hand over a bottle of wine to find out where it came from, the year of the grapes, as well as the drink's key flavours.

This augmented experience is made possible by the use of around 200 Kinect sensors that, as part of a cloud content management system, use body detection to interpret the customer's gestures.

"The interactive table with its extended electronic label is the innovation item that most likely will be introduced in the existing stores," explained Tubertini.

Vertical shelving

An open store layout is seen as a key feature of Coop's Supermarket of the Future

In the Coop store the traditional layout of shelving has been rethought and it is accompanied by a touch application, which gives customers an opportunity to select a product and view additional information that would otherwise be difficult to include in a traditional label. This is also viewed by Accenture as a sustainability selling point, because customers can find out information about chilled or frozen products on a screen prior to opening the refrigerator or freezer door.

Digital displays

Digital signage screens are spread throughout the shop floor, giving suppliers and food manufacturers multiple opportunities to market their new ranges or promote relevant messaging to supermarket visitors.

Real-time data visualisation

Accenture and Coop have purposefully worked on developing a customer journey, which offers various digital touch points along the way.

At the end of this customer journey, shoppers are drawn to a large digital screen that, at 120 sq m, almost spans the entire width of the back wall of the supermarket. On that screen is a range of real-time data about the store, including the number of visitors, the products they are interacting with and the top ten best-selling products – the idea is a nod to people's increasing willingness to compare and share their purchasing choices, exemplified by the growth in social media usage, and to make their shopping experience more community-oriented.

Other technology and solutions

A quick scan of the supermarket by Essential Retail found self-service tills from NCR and a DHL service booth situated near the exit of the store, allowing shoppers to send their parcels worldwide.

And although many retailers are still trying to fathom the best way to implement and optimise beacons in their stores, Coop's Supermarket of the Future has installed some throughout its shop to interact with a mobile app, which was also created in partnership with Accenture. The beacon technology has been included to help personalise people's shopping experiences and allow them to locate certain items in a store using their mobile device, if they so wish.

Machines created by ABB Robotics are also on display in the fruit and vegetables aisle, picking up products to give customers a more interactive view of the items they might want to buy, and, although visually compelling, this publication remains to be convinced about the added value of this particular innovation in grocery. 'Why can't people check out the fruit for themselves?' was a question asked by a number of the tour party, although the technology was reportedly implemented to show how robotics and humans can work in conjunction.

Accenture says that the store contains 44 Kinect sensors, 260 32-inch monitors, 70 32-inch touch monitors, 50 55-inch monitors, 30 tablets and 400 PCs.

All technology on display in the Coop store is run on cloud technology, with the application architecture and infrastructure based on Microsoft solutions and the Microsoft-Azure cloud platform. Managed services provider Avanade, a joint venture between Accenture and Microsoft, was also involved in the project.

Smart thinking in smart cities

Tubertini acknowledges that the Italian retail market, especially food and grocery, is behind in its use of technology in stores – compared to other countries such as the UK and France.

"Solutions that in other countries have almost become commodities, like electronic labels, click & collect and online sales, are at a very early stage in Italy.

"We deem that the experience of the Supermarket of the Future will give a boost to accelerate the adoption of digital solutions in Italian retail."

And that comment appears indicative of Expo itself, which this year is focused on the theme of food sustainability as the global population continues to grow, with a special nod to how technology and the Internet of Things can help society evolve.

Gionata Tedeschi, managing director and digital strategy lead at Accenture Strategy IGEM, said the expo was "one of the first experiences of smart cities". His remarks are supported by the decision by the event's organisers to introduce smart metering, smart lighting and offer free Wi-Fi, all run on cloud technology.

The Expo series has been running since the mid-19th-century, but Milan 2015 is the first to run in a truly digital era, prompting those behind the event wanted to incorporate multiple digital touch-points all based on a common infrastructure.

One Accenture philosophy is that technology is now the main enabler for doing business and this is one of the reasons why the company is keen for the Milan Expo site to become a home for innovation and a thriving business hub once the event comes to an end this autumn. That decision is yet to be made, but it is clear the Accenture team believes the 'smart city' it has helped develop in the heart of Italy's industrial north could yet become a mini version of Silicon Valley once the tourists and country pavilions have packed up and gone home.

"Digital has become the new way of communicating – a new language," noted Tedeschi.

Coop's Supermarket of the Future has been developed with this notion in mind, and as its CIO said, the company is using the store to learn how consumers want to use technology during the shopping process. Coop and Accenture are focused on leveraging new technologies to help keep consumers better informed during the journey.

Tubertini said: "The main takeaway from this experience is that the consumer interest for product information is even higher than we expected; the visitors are placing a lot of attention on information that is normally hard to find on the product package such as the carbon footprint or the suggestions for conservation and consumption.

"Detailed information and full transparency will soon become a must-have for food and grocery retailers."

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