Tech startup launches scalable Amazon Go-like system
- AiFi, a startup technology company, has launched a scalable, checkout-free system similar to Amazon Go for retailers. In an interview with Food Dive, co-founder and CEO Steve Gu said the technology is able to be installed in small stores as well as large conventional grocery stores and even supercenters.
- AiFi will unveil its technology at a 50,000-square foot store belonging to a major grocery retailer, which Gu declined to name. The company could potentially expand to other locations with this retailer in the future.
- Like Amazon Go, AiFi’s system relies on computer vision and artificial intelligence to track shoppers in stores and then process their orders. Gu and his wife and co-founder Ying Zheng, both of whom used to work for Google and Apple, started AiFi in 2016 and have received $4 million in funding to date.
Amazon Go captured the attention of consumers and the industry alike when it opened earlier this year in Seattle, and many have hailed it as a major innovation in retail. But it turns out the online shopping giant wasn’t the only company working on this checkout-free technology.
Like Amazon Go, AiFi relies on computer vision and artificial intelligence to allow customers to walk into any outfitted store, grab their products and simply walk out. Shoppers check in with an app as they enter, then small cameras perched over the store track them as they make their way through the aisles. The system recognizes when a product has been taken off the shelf, and charges shoppers after they leave the store.
The cameras can track and process customers independently, and together form a network that can cover even large-format stores, Gu said.
"Imagine a store with hundreds or thousands of eyes," he told Food Dive in an interview. "Each camera can make individual decisions, and collectively they can track people across different camera views."
AiFi’s 50,000-square-foot pilot store, set to be announced later this year, dwarfs the 1,800-square-foot Amazon Go location, proving this sort of technology is scalable to conventional grocery stores. It also shows that the technology can be retrofitted onto existing stores, and could give grocers of all sizes a way to compete directly with Amazon’s format. According to a report from Recode, Amazon plans to build as many as six more Go locations along the East Coast.
Recode has also reported that Walmart is working on its own checkout-free store to compete with Amazon Go. If true, this could signal major competition ahead in friction-free retailing. Of course, this could also be the major retailer AiFi is working with.
Regardless, AiFi still has a lot to prove. It needs to show that its system works, for starters. It’s also unclear how affordable the technology is for grocers, many of whom have limited investment budgets. Amazon Go detractors argue that sales will struggle to overcome the format’s pricey technology.
Gu insists that AiFi’s technology is affordable for a wide range of supermarkets, from independents to major chains. The hardware and software have been developed with cost in mind, and the company is working to reduce the density of its cameras and sensors. A small store, he said, might only need one or two cameras.
AiFi will also have to prove that it’s more effective than the many scan-and-go programs that are popping up across the U.S. Kroger and Walmart have been rolling out their mobile-enabled systems to more stores, as have independent operators. H-E-B just announced it’s testing a scan-and-go program at two of its stores.
Given all the buzz surrounding Amazon Go, friction-free shopping is clearly very exciting to consumers. That sort of response was bound to spur other retailers and vendors to create similar technology. Far from unattainable, this technology has become scalable, Gu said, and he expects costs to come down over time. Eventually, he predicts, checkout-free technology will become the norm.
"It’s almost like self-driving cars," he said. "It’s becoming inevitable."
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