Retail technology trial in a Trial: Japan's connected supermarket

Trial operates 227 supermarkets across Japan but one is somewhat smarter than the rest, as the company looks to create compelling customer experiences and useful business metrics using multiple technologies.

The store located in Island City, in Fukuoka’s Higashi-ku ward in the south-west of Japan, is operating and serving customers with smart trolleys, electronic shelf labels, digital information screens at the shelf edge, and with multiple cameras and other devices that help monitor customer movements that feed into a comprehensive analytics system.

Essential Retail visited the store on 1 November a few months on from its February opening to see the technology in action, and multiple customers are using the so-called "supercentre" in the way it has been designed to use. At the heart of it all is a prepaid membership card that can be signed up for in less than a minute, and then used on each visit.

What are the features?   

The aptly named Trial is running the tests in this one shop with a view that it could be rolled out to its other locations across Japan, but also as part of a wider plan to package the system as something to be sold to third-party retailers and help digitise their stores.

Central to the store are smart trolleys which were co-developed by Trial and Remmo, and which provide a self-scan, self-service element to the shopping process. Members scan their card on the trolley and then begin their shop, scanning items as they go which register on a screen attached to the cart.

They can then pass through a final checkout without having to queue at a typical manned checkout, although a member of staff does conduct a final check to ensure payment has been completed.

Talking about one key payment benefit of this system, Matsushige Hirokazu, corporate officer and director of management planning at Trial Financial Services, said: "Customers don’t have to worry about how much they've spent or if they’ve run out of cash because the calculation is done automatically for them – they can only spend what is on their card."

The monitors on the trolleys also suggest items and special offer coupons depending on what is scanned and the user's specific purchasing history. 

The smart element of the store is aided by Panasonic’s camera equipment. Some 700 cameras, equipped with artificial intelligence image recognition capability to detect both the interaction with products as well as customer demographics, allows Trial to monitor shopper trends and stock levels.

Most cameras are used to gauge the effectiveness of security, product promotions and how customers interact with displays, but 100 of them are linked to Panasonic's Vieureka platform for analysing movement and collecting gender and age data, which is fed into an analytics platform to help the retailer learn more about its customers.

The platform, together with PUX Corporation's image recognition engine, analyses the details and sends the results directly to the cloud to create 24-hour-a-day visualisation capability for Trial.

Retail as a service

The Trial store also operates with smart shelves down some of its aisles, with electric shelf labels used to change price at opportunistic times, and a smattering of digital shelves offering additional product information once an item is lifted from them.

When packaged up, there could be multiple ways for this system to be used by other retailers to drive sales and customer engagement, and develop a level of understanding about their customers that previously was the reserve of fast-growing online-only businesses.

"We are not doing this just for ourselves but for other retailers as well because many small retailers in Japan are not connected to the internet and they do not have enough resources," Hirokazu explained, adding the analytics can be used as part of workforce management.

"Therefore, we would like to create a new mechanism for those retailers so they can manage their shop floor efficiently and with the least amount of investment."

He added: "We want to disseminate this convenient system to society and bring benefits to shoppers."