Blog Post: Automated Retail Stores

Something as mundane as grocery shopping has become a rare occurrence for many of us in recent months. In countries that have been hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, shopping for food may be the only time a week people venture outside their homes. Once inside the grocery store, shoppers race against the clock to grab what they need and get out. The fewer the human interactions the better. Nowadays, no one really wants to be outside, if they don’t have to. Already during this pandemic, many at-risk groups of people who cannot travel outside are getting their groceries from driverless cars where available. Even once shelter-in-place restrictions are lifted, people may still enjoy the in-store shopping experience, but they may demand a faster check-out process. Post-COVID, it is likely that retail shopping will never be the same. This is a change that demands a lot from us in the industrial PC market.

A failed attempt in 2017 

Unmanned stores, to some extent, have been in existent since as early as 2017 in China. The problem back then was that there were glitches, and the unsatisfactory customer experience deterred businesses from further investing in them. The overall consensus was that the technology was not there to make these stores a real “just-walk-out” experience. Since 2017, however, more R&D and experimentation have gone into these stores, and it is safe to say that the technology for these stores has significantly evolved.

Now, as the global situation highlights the importance of automated stores, they are once again popping up—this time all around the world. To ensure that these stores avoid a second failure to launch, our industry has a lot of work to do. The storage and memory solutions for off-the-shelf sensors and computer vision camera are typical solutions for identifying customers and their purchases. What may be an improvement this time is a number of services such as a live bot connected to a remote customer-service team to make the experience more human and thus familiar.

Implications for the IPC market

Regardless of how automated and unmanned these stores end up being, they need to operate in a way that delivers on the promise of convenience—or there’s no point in switching from the traditional ones. To do so, the network connections, information transmission and data analysis capabilities all need to be present to make the store of the future a reality. Research on these new stores in China seems promising: the autonomous retail business in China is forecast to have a CAGR of 110% between 2017 and 2022. Nonetheless, only time will tell if autonomous stores will trend globally and become a mainstay.

As an industry, what we can do is continue to invest in R&D that makes the in-store experience smoother. Advancements like 3D NAND technology can store more data and speed up transmission. Mini PCIe expansion cards can strengthen the networks needed for any in-store communication amongst robots and any external, remote communication with staff. A variety of form factors and interfaces will also be helpful in making machines more compact and the store not overcrowded by machinery.

We may not be the businesses rolling out these stores (the Amazons and Alibabas of the world), but as the component manufacturers, our contribution will determine whether this time autonomous stores are successful or not.


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