Let’s just get this out of the way. Imagr is not Imagur. Imagr is a New Zealand-based startup angling to bring its smart cart, cashierless shopping solution to grocery, convenience and other stores across the Asia Pacific region. Imagur is an online library of cute/funny gifs. Since we are a publication covering the future of food, you can probably guess which one we’ll be writing about here.
There are two main camps when it comes to cashierless checkout at retail. in one camp, you have companies like Grabango and Zippin, which install hardware (cameras and sensors) and software (computer vision and AI) inside a store to automatically keep track of what people purchase.
In the other camp, you have companies like Imagr, which push all that technology down into the shopping cart and basket to monitor what shoppers place in them.
There is no “better” solution and each has its advantages. Retrofitting a store provides less “friction” for shoppers (they literally just grab an item and go), but retrofitting a store can be costly, especially for large stores. Smart cart solutions don’t require any installation, but do require shoppers to use the designated carts and baskets.
Execs at Imagr gave me a video demo of its smart carts in action this week, and they work pretty much as you’d expect. A shopper downloads the Imagr app, and scans a barcode on the special Imagr basket (and forthcoming full-sized cart). The baskets have a ring of cameras and lights that use computer vision to identify items placed inside. Consumers shop as they normally would with the Imagr app on their phone keeping a tally. When it comes time to check out, a human checkout clerk scans a barcode on the shopper’s phone to complete the transaction.
In that workflow, you may notice that the process isn’t entirely cashierless, as there is a person who checks shoppers out. Imagr said that the reason for this was to increase its speed to market. By keeping the cashier in place for now, they can get the rest of its technology into stores.
Speed to market seems to be an overriding ethos for Imagr, which has foresaken some of the extra bells and whistles you might expect to find on a smart cart. Unlike rival smart cart companies like Caper, Veeve and Amazon, Imagr’s smart carts do not have screens attached. Screens can provide in-store guidance, and upsell products to generate additional sales.
But Imagr told me that it purposely avoided adding screens to make its carts simpler to use, it didn’t want people to have to figure a new interface out. They also skipped the screen for privacy reasons (i.e. having an item that might be embarrassing in big letters on a screen that others might see), and because it was just one more thing that could break (like a bum wheel on a shopping cart).
Imagr is focused on the Asia Pacific region and is already live in three locations across Tokyo and Osaka, Japan, as well as Aukland, New Zealand. The company has a partnership H2O in Japan, which operates two grocery retail brands there, as well as two European retailers to be announced.
The Japanese market is turning into a hotbed for cashierless checkout. Softbank led a $30 million Series A round in Accel Robotics, Zippin recently partnered with Fujitsu to sell cahierless tech in Japan, and Imagr’s $9 million Series A round was led by Toshiba (Imagr has raised $12.5 million in total).
Interest in cashierless checkout was accelerated by the COVID pandemic, as retailers sought to reduce the amount of human-to-human interactions in their stores. But Japan has an added impetus for cashierless checkout because of its aging population, and the need to automate more of its labor force.
In other words, more retailers are going to be checking out cashierless checkout this year.