One trend on display at this year’s CES is what I would describe ‘humanless retail’, where technology is used to sell physical goods to consumers without the help of humans.
Of course, this trend isn’t new. 2017 brought us a bunch of new ideas for taking the human out of the retail transaction by using machine vision/AI, IoT and more. What I saw on the show floor in Vegas is just a continuation of these concepts.
For example, last year we hear a lot about Amazon Go, a store concept where customers walk in and out without ever talking to a cashier. And this week, we saw the startup version of this in AIPoly, a company which offers a machine vision and sensor platform to create what the company calls “autonomous markets”.
Just as with Amazon Go, AIPoly customers register with the “store” and are identified as they walk in (or up to in the case of a kiosk) through facial recognition. The store then registers a purchase as the machine vision recognizes the products they pick off the shelves.
Below is a pic of the demo the company was showing off at CES.
And then there’s the Qvie, a single-product micro-vending machine that is essentially a connected lockbox version of the booze fridge in the Hilton. Qvie is targeted at the Airbnb host as a way to enable additional revenue through in-room sales, a trend that seems almost inevitable as Airbnb becomes a more and more viable alternative to hotel stays.
Finally, there’s Robomart, which can best be described as the love child of the controversial Bodega and an autonomous automobile. The vision behind Robomart is a retailer such as 7-11 or Target would lease a fleet of Robomarts, stock them, and then bring the store to the consumer’s home. While it’s not exactly the same as Zume Pizza delivery trucks, it does something similar in making the retail location less relevant by bringing the point of presence closer to the consumer.
Robomart CEO Ali Ahmed told me he expects the first Robomarts to be available this year, which strikes me as extremely ambitious since the company is still raising funding to build out its vision. A mobile autonomous car-store combo doesn’t strike me as something you can do cheaply.
These are just three ideas I ran across in a couple hours on the floor at CES, enough to make clear that humanless retail is going to be much in 2018. The question for me is, will humans buy the idea of humanless retail, or is this just another case of Silicon Valley getting ahead of itself as it looks for addressable markets to apply new tech like AI, robotics and IoT?
The answer is yes, humanless retail is going to big. Sure, there will be lots of companies floating in the humanless retail startup deadpool before it’s all said and done (this is the case with pretty much every startup market in case you haven’t noticed), but the reason I think many of these early ideas will become much bigger and common is they’re simply evolutionary steps of what we’ve been seeing for decades and with much more rudimentary technology.
The self-service checkout at the grocery store, vending machines in your office, and the booze fridge in your hotel room are all innovations aimed at selling things to people without the need for another person to take money and put something in a bag. The only difference with these new ideas is the latest technologies to make humanless retail more convenient than ever before.