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This technology is making a huge impact on retail stores – but the biggest changes haven’t happened yet

If you haven’t been to the Amazon go store, it’s a small store with a big difference. Before entering for the first time, you register your credit card or Amazon account. In the store, software tracks you as you go and charges you for everything you take, discounting what you return. Like Uber or Lyft, the purchase transaction is automatic upon departure.

There are a number of technologies that are said to enable Amazon Go to function, including shelf scales and sensors. But arguably the most important technology is computer vision. Computer vision is exactly what it sounds like: the camera is trained on an area and software analyzes what the camera captures; The camera is the eyes and the software is the brain.

Sandeep Oni, Product Business Strategist and Retail Technology Consultant at consulting firm Gartner
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he told me that computer vision “is one of the most important technological steps in the past 10 years and has fundamentally changed the scale of innovation.”

Amazon Go is just one example of the changes computer vision technology will bring to retail, most of which are yet to come. We are only at the beginning of the impact that this technology will have.

What’s Next

The next step is to move from exiting the store back through the rest of the store and the supply chain.

One of the most common ways stores lose profits is when managers don’t know the shelves have run out of product in the boxes in the back. A computer vision-assisted camera can view shelves all day and automatically send alerts for restocking.

Similarly, the computer vision used in the back of the store can alert employees when the product is not in storage where it should be. The same is true of a giant distribution center. Computer vision can also notice and send a notification when an order has been incorrectly selected.

This technology “will change the face of everything that contains a barcode. It will remove all barriers to creating warehouses,” said Paige Waldron, project manager at Hy-Tek, a supply chain expert.

Computer vision also saves billions of dollars of capital trapped in misplaced unproductive stock.

But wait there is more

All of this technology is available today and is being tested, tried, and implemented. What is not there yet is the use of big data that ultimately comes from computer vision.

Imagine that you stood in one place in a retail store and watched consumers shop for a specific item or group of products. You will be able to notice what attracts attention, what consumers look at, how they pick up things, what part of the package they focus on, and if you stand there long enough, you will understand why some products are bought and others not.

I’m told that of all the consumer products on the shelves, Jameson Whiskey is returned to the shelf less than any other, and consumers who receive it buy it. Conversely, ice cream is taken out of the freezer, looked at, and returned about 30% of the time. All manufacturers want to know the “return rate” of their products and to understand why consumers do what they do.

Computer vision can answer all of these questions and reveal meaningful changes in product and marketing. Through computer vision, the camera and software do the dirty work, they stand vigil all day and get the information they need to manufacturers.

As Will Glaser, CEO and founder of cashless payment company Grabango, told me, “It saves money, saves time, and improves the supply chain.”

What holds this back is that computers are not as smart as they often seem. In order for a program to understand the images it sees, it must be trained. For that, he needs many photos, millions of them, and it can take a long time to get to them.

Over time, it is the numerous images that enable the software to learn what it is seeing, draw conclusions and make the recommendations that retailers need.

This is where the technology is now. We’re seeing a real benefit from computer vision, like Amazon Go and other payment technologies. But the deeper analysis software is still learning, piling up images, getting what humans think of as “experience” and “learning” and what computer scientists call a big enough “data lake.” It will likely take years before the benefits from this process are realized.

You might think it sounds intimidating and no one will want to go to a store they know is being monitored. Perhaps, but you already know that almost all public places are now on video. People are accustomed to every web browser traffic being monitored. Odds are that consumers will get used to this too.

Using computer vision to analyze consumer behavior in stores will allow retailers to obtain data on behavior that they can now only obtain from their online stores. Computer vision will facilitate “opportunities that are barely scratching the surface now,” Gartner’s Oni says.

Every type of retailer is working on it. When I asked Kate Fannin, executive director of retail consumer experience at Estee Lauder, about it, she said, “There are elements of data capture that are absolutely happening and we will continue to enhance it.”

Even after all the software is designed to do all this, there will still be opportunities and future prospects for computer vision. “You can track consumer behavior, but you don’t know why” they’re doing what they’re doing, says Sarah Chung, CEO of Landing International, which helps cosmetic brands take advantage of technology. After the program has addressed the creation of big data lakes to understand human behavior and how to improve stores, there will still be a greater understanding of the behavior that science and retailers must learn.

It’s all just getting started, but a tipping point has been reached for computer vision. The next few years will reveal the massive changes that computer vision will bring to retailers and consumers to enable stores to do more than they did before.


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