Automation puts supermarkets in check, a sector at risk of disappearing as we know it

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We go to them daily, even several times in the same day. Supermarkets have been part of our life since they arrived in Spain in 1957, the year in which the Minister of Commerce Alberto Ullastres decided to implement a plan to modernize the commerce system through the creation of a network of self-service food stores of public ownership. These new establishments worked so well that two years later, in 1959, the first supermarket belonging to a private company was opened: Caprabo.

Over the years the supermarkets that depended on the State gradually disappeared, leaving the sector in the hands of private companies. They have known how to adapt to the times, betting on e-commerce and basing their business strategy on customer loyalty. However, it seems that technology could change this paradigm in the coming years through the creation of fully automated large surfaces.

Automation is nothing new, he has been talking for years about the impact that replacing workers with robots could have in the long term. Machines, and now also what are known as artificial intelligences, have been used to improve those processes created by man. For example, a robot that performs an operation more precisely following the prior instructions of a doctor, the assembly lines of large factories or even purely electronic supports such as a random number generator, a device generally used by giants in the sector of the I play online like PokerStars in order to avoid fraud or to create more secure passwords. However, the current trend is to consider these new technologies as the support of the industry and not as a complement to it.

Supermarkets have not been left behind in this new business model. Thus, in our country it is already common to have automatic checkouts, that is, boxes in which users pass the products purchased through a sensor that reads their barcodes to later make the payment for them autonomously. In this way, customers can skip the step of waiting in long lines to be charged by a natural person. For the moment, this new system has not meant a great loss of jobs for the employees of these commercial surfaces since the vast majority of them have one or more workers monitoring the perfect functioning of these automatic cashiers. However, there have been layoffs, a figure that could be extended to the total number of supermarkets without boxes being installed in our country.

The person responsible for this new commercial vision is none other than the e-commerce giant Amazon. After making the leap to the production of its own clothing line and the world of streaming video platforms, Jeff Bezos' company launched a pioneering project: Amazon Go supermarkets. These grocery stores work in a fully automated way, in such a way that customers enter, take what they want and leave. The payment mechanism is made through the clients' mobile phones, who must pass them through a scanner when entering the premises. Through a careful system that combines cameras, deep learning and multiple sensors, the products that each customer has taken are determined and their monetary amount is charged to their Amazon account.

When Amazon gave the green light to this innovative trading system back in 2016, many questioned its effectiveness. Even for the company itself, this first store in Seattle functioned as an "experiment", something that can be seen in the decision to open just one supermarket and not several, spread over the most important cities in the United States. However, it seems that the experiment went wonderfully since Amazon currently has three boxless supermarkets in Seattle and one in Chicago. In addition, Bezos intends to open a total of 10 more stores before the end of 2018, two of them in the cities of New York and San Francisco. But the goals of the American company for the food retail industry do not stop here since Amazon plans to open more than 3,000 Amazon Go stores between now and 2021. According to analysts at Juniper Research, the opening of these new stores without boxes would translate into in a market volume of 45,000 million dollars with a total of 32 million users who would put aside traditional supermarkets and hypermarkets to make the leap to this new type of shopping area.

What happens in Europe?

In Europe this trend has taken two years to arrive but has finally materialized as a reality. The most famous supermarket chain in the Netherlands, Albert Heijn, has just opened his first store without employees. The payment system is different from Amazon Go, as customers must pay for each product at the time they pick it up using the Tap to Go card from the supermarket. At the moment, this system is only operational in two supermarkets in the Dutch capital, but the franchise hopes to extend it to all its stores.

This strong commitment on the part of companies in the sector joins the data obtained through a survey carried out by RIS News and collected in a report by the company eMarketer. These data reveal that 59% of Americans prefer to make their purchases in fully automated stores rather than in traditional supermarkets. In this way, everything seems to indicate that this type of commercial surfaces will arrive in our country very soon, leading to the obsolescence of the current system that we know. Technology has won the battle over direct customer service.

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