19. August 2020 | Interview, Retail Technology, What´s new in Retail

by Julia Pott (exclusively for EuroShop.mag)

The German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (German: Deutsches Forschungszentrum für Künstliche Intelligenz, DFKI) plans to build on the strengths of brick-and-mortar retail by emphasizing modern technologies and an intelligent fresh food counter.

Time for personalized, in-person customer service – unarguably the best weapon for brick-and-mortar retailers in their fight against online competition. The creative minds behind the Innovative Retail Laboratory at DFKI fully understand this and want to support retailers in this endeavor with modern technologies. One of their innovative solutions is an intelligent fresh food counter for food retailers. Frederic Kerber, Head of IRL, explains the concept.

Mr. Kerber, what prompted the idea for the intelligent fresh food counter?

Man in dark jacket and light blue shirt smiles into the camera; copyright: DFKI

“These prototypes allow us to study how consumers respond to new technologies. It also enables us to understand the limits of the technology and establish the general requirements that must be met before testing them under real-life conditions.” – Frederic Kerber on the work of the DFKI. He answered our questions together with his colleagues from the Knowledge4Retail consortium. / © DFKI

Frederic Kerber: Consumers who shop every day play a major role in our research. One of our goals is to support them with our innovative solutions. This prompted us to create an intelligent fresh food counter. We started by analyzing the typical customer service problems at a fresh food counter. In a classic scenario, the customer stands in front of the counter, while the sales staff is behind the counter, ready to serve the shopper. Yet misunderstandings are frequent in this setting. One example is the customer pointing at a specific product which the staff often misinterprets as they view the display case from a different angle. These mix-ups annoy the customer but also irritate those persons who are waiting next in line.
That prompted us to analyze typical scenarios at the fresh food counter and study how we can use technical aids to improve processes without disrupting the natural employee-customer interaction.

Yet your solution isn’t designed to replace direct contact with consumers. What is your goal?
Personalized, in-person customer service is the strength of brick-and-mortar retail and should consequently never be replaced. This is where our demonstrator comes in. Its goal – and the goal of all other demonstrators of the Innovative Retail Laboratory – is to support in-person interaction, and not to replace it. That’s why the objective of the intelligent fresh food counter was not to alter the actual face-to-face interaction aspect between sales staff and customers but to assist it without either party having to cope with new technologies. Our intelligent sensor technology and the use of AI methods make this interaction easier by supporting those tasks that are presently still somewhat finicky. The involved parties get the exact information they need without a change in the natural interaction.



How does the intelligent counter assist brick-and-mortar retailers?
A 3D or depth sensing camera scans and maps the counter and surrounding area. Incidentally, game consoles use the same sensor technology. Artificial intelligence (AI) techniques make it possible to use these three-dimensional images to identify a person’s arm in front of the counter and the point direction and subsequently recognize the product the consumer points out. This method also makes it possible to select the desired product directly on the scale. The screen can also display additional information such as the country of origin, product features, or suggest dishes or wines that complement the cheese the consumer has chosen. The information is projected on the counter’s glass pane – something consumers are already familiar with thanks to so-called head-up displays in modern cars. This also makes it possible for multiple people to use the system simultaneously without affecting the weighing process on the scale.

Your idea doesn’t just address customers who are first in line, correct?
We also offer customers a way to effectively manage wait times and prevent boredom while they wait in line. More specifically, the equipment allows not only customers who are being served but also customers who are still waiting in line to already make an informed decision. Avoiding misunderstandings and making information available for shoppers prior to making their final selection gives sales associates more time and improves customer service, which ultimately benefits all parties involved.

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