The European response to Amazon Go

Helen, a stay-at-home mom living in northern Lisbon, has just done a weekly grocery store. But instead of paying for her items at the checkout, she walked straight out of the store without going to the checkout.

The 34-year-old is one of the first customers of Europe’s first autonomous store, which uses computer vision and machine learning to allow customers to shop without queuing, paying with a cashier or even pulling out their wallet or phone.

“I’m glad this store has opened in my neighborhood,” she told Sifted on a recent visit. “It’s so much more convenient to go shopping when you have a stroller. I love it.”

The store, which is a partnership between technology provider Sensei and physical retailer Continente, is a prime example of what Sensei hopes will soon be used by retailers across the continent.

It aims to be the European response to Amazon Go, the cashless store created by Amazon that launched in London in March after testing water in in the United States for the past three years.

Sensei’s bet is that ultimately all stores will be forced to adopt this technology in an effort to improve the customer experience.

“There is no hassle, no friction in the experience: if you forgot to buy water, you just have to go in, buy your water, go out –– it’s super fast! It’s like Uber for shopping, ”explains Joana Rafael, COO and co-founder of Sensei.

How it works?

It starts with the Sensei app – when customers enter the store for the first time they register – which provides a unique QR code used to connect their “virtual shopping cart” to the Sensei cameras mounted on the store ceiling.

These cameras track the movements of customers in the store and automatically add products to the app. The data from the cameras is also linked to the data from the sensors integrated into the shelves. And WWhen customers are done shopping and leave the store, they will instantly receive an email receipt from Sensei.

Rafael says there is a bit of a psychological barrier at first, but people quickly get used to it.

“We’ve noticed that the hardest part for customers is actually leaving the store,” he says. “They feel like they’re stealing our products, but they’re not. They are simply billed automatically through the app and don’t queue up to pay.

Lights, cameras, action

The stand-alone store has over 130 cameras on the ceiling for a space of 153 square meters. But Sensei’s cameras don’t use facial recognition to track customers.

“We don’t know who the customers are. We have no way of identifying a person. She or he has an anonymous identifier and the system identifies the customer basket associated with a number ”, explains Vasco Portugal, CEO and co-founder of Sensei.

Before opening the store, Sensei conducted a privacy data assessment and the founders said they did not keep any user data or identification.

“Cameras keep track of individual customers through their paths and the colors of their clothes and stuff like that. It’s a mix of colors that helps cameras understand each customer, ”says Frederico Santos, digital and innovation manager at Sonae MC, the company that owns Sensei’s partner retailer, Continente.

He said the system also recognizes each individual product in the store through a machine learning algorithm.

“Each shelf has a sensor that detects the weight and location of a product. It allows you to identify it correctly and add or delete it in the virtual shopping cart.

Like other shopping apps, Sensei asks for the customer’s name, phone number, and payment method – and in this store, the app’s data is managed by Sonae ™.

But that doesn’t seem to bother customers. Since launching on May 26, the store has served an average of 150 to 200 customers per day, from students to seniors.

“It was funny because the first people to enter [on the opening day] were old people. Even before the opening they were asking when it was going to open because they really wanted to be one of the first to walk into the store, ”Portugal told Sifted.

Autonomous store Sensei
Customers shopping in the stand-alone store

A store optimized for retailers

Sensei also says its technology gives retailers more data on inventory, product shelf life, and makes sure 100% of storage space is allocated. Staff members also receive real-time inventory updates.

“Basically the supply chain is more optimized for the store. In normal stores, everything happens through experience, walking, eye checks while Sensei’s technology knows the performance of each of these products, which are sold the most and the rotation ”, explains Vasco Portugal.

An optimized supply chain could, according to Sensei, also mean less food waste. More … than 1 million tonnes of food are wasted or lost in Portugall – that’s 17% of what the country produces.

And when it comes to finance, optimizing inventory and improving the customer experience could help retailers generate more revenue – but right now Sensei’s technology isn’t reducing labor costs. -work.

The store employs seven people, which is more than a regular store of this size, Santos says. “Usually 20 to 30% of people work at the cash register and check the stock and fill the shelves when there are no customers. ”

In the stand-alone store, staff are responsible for welcoming new customers, managing inventory and the store, and presenting new products to customers.

Online grocery shopping vs cashless experience

One of the megatrends in food technology in Europe is fast-paced online grocery apps – which received billions of venture capitalists in 2021. But the founders of Sensei don’t see them as direct competitors. .

“Stand-alone stores can also be a source of product for fast online delivery people who need a downtown store. Having dark stores and convenience stores like ours is actually very important for the sustainability of the fast delivery experience, ”says Rafael, who pointed out that a Deliveroo employee was in the store earlier to make purchases for a customer.

Since Sensei offers a quick shopping experience, its technology is useful for runners and Q-commerce startups, who would otherwise have to deal with inventory in multiple dark stores, she said.

Santos sees Sensei’s technology and the rise of online grocery applications as an additional option for customers: “Continente has been shopping online for 20 years. But online and e-commerce still represent 10% of sales in Portugal.

Although online grocery orders have increased during the pandemic in the UK, France and Italy, they remain relatively low, with just a quarter or less of those populations having purchased groceries online – according to a report by the GWI market research platform.

“I don’t think we’ve reached the end of the physical store yet. It’s not at all something that will change ten years from now, so we need to keep investing in convenience.

He told Sifted that the company is considering adding a physical cash register to the service to give customers the option of using traditional payments or signing up through the app.

Can Sensei compete with Amazon Go?

The founders of Sensei are betting on an “unrivaled and convenient customer experience”.

“We believe that the best technologies are the ones that really blend into your life and you don’t notice them.” says Joana Rafael. “The store is welcoming, you don’t need to change your shopping behavior other than you no longer have to stand in line to pay.”

Joana Rafael and Vasco Portugal, founders of Sensei

Within a month of opening its beta store, Sensei and Continente are now adjusting technology gaps and looking to collect enough data on customer habits and inventory.

While Amazon Go plans to deploy its technology in airports, the founders of Sensei said they were exploring other verticals such as take-out stores, food courts, gas station stores and large supermarkets.

In April, Sensei raised a $ 6.5 million funding round led by Seaya Ventures and Iberis Capital, and told Sifted that they are in talks with retailers in Portugal, Spain, France, Germany and UK.

Convenience and automation will be the norm over the next five years, ”says Rafael. “Every store will be stand-alone or automated at some point, because technology will give people a [shopping] live.”

Cécile Bussy is Sifted’s social media journalist. She tweets the latest data on European technology and weather technology new of @ CecileBussy

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