Belgium’s Colruyt Group tests technologies and retail concepts
by Marie Fandel & Julia Pott (exclusively for EuroCIS.mag)
Tech innovations in the retail sector are exclusive to U.S. retail giants like Amazon and Walmart? Not at all. Belgium’s Colruyt Group (with about one-hundredth the sales and headcount of Walmart) is proving that innovative store and shopping concepts are also being tried and introduced in Europe.
In recent years, the company has been focusing on urban shopping experiences. Both with autonomous 24/7 store formats and in the area of fulfillment for online orders, the Colruyt Group is focusing on technologies for maximum convenience in cities.
Self-service stores for 24/7 shopping
In November 2021, the launch of a new store concept, the autonomous OKay Direct store, which is open around the clock, took place.
At the time, Gert Somers, responsible for OKay’s urban strategies at Colruyt Group, explained the motivation for this offering: “A great added value for customers is that they can do their shopping 24/7 in their neighborhood. With this, we especially want to appeal to target groups that would benefit from a store with longer opening hours. I am thinking of students, people with irregular or late working hours such as care workers, emergency services, etc.“ The opportunity to shop in a self-determined way is made possible by the latest technologies, which come from the company’s own technology start-up Smart Technics.
Intelligent camera surveillance and sensors on the shelves enable smooth shopping. Shoppers check in via QR code scan with the Colruyt Xtra app or a loyalty card when entering the store and can also open the (refrigerated) shelves and remove their products in this way. The system recognizes the products taken out and creates an invoice, the QR code is again used for checkout, and electronic payment is made at the self-service checkout.
At the beginning of 2023, Colruyt Group reported the opening of the second OKay Direct store in Lennik. Unlike the 150-square-meter store in Ghent, this is a container with just over 20 square meters. That, explains Christophe Dehandschutter, managing director of OKay, is one of the strengths of the technology: it is scalable, you can use it flexibly in large, small or completely different formats and contexts. Somers adds: “With this innovative pilot project, we will evaluate the feasibility, popularity and success of such a retail formula in a city environment. We believe that interest in such concepts is growing and that it meets the evolving needs of customers. We will test the concept extensively before rolling it out on a larger scale to other major cities.”
A customized supermarket for your own company?
One of these other contexts, hinted at by Dehandschutter, in which Smart Technics’ technology is being used is the Spar For You concept. This “store-as-a-service” offering is aimed at B2B customers, i.e., companies that want to offer their employees a convenient shopping experience on their own company premises. For example, the Spar For You store can be customized to meet the company’s needs; options include food corners with coffee machines and microwaves, mini-markets that stock non-food items as well as food, and smart refrigerators. Such customized company catering provides employees with user-friendly, contactless, round-the-clock catering.
According to Colruyt Group, test projects include the Belgian site of facility management company ISS, Belgian airline Brussels Airlines and pharmaceutical company UCB.
Fulfillment options for online grocery orders
The Colruyt Group’s portfolio includes an e-commerce offering in addition to many other chains and store formats: for the fulfillment of grocery orders through the Collect&Go online store, the company is also testing different methods for customers to get their groceries ordered online.
Since March 2022, Collect&Go walk-in pick-up points have been opened in Belgian cities. The small pick-up stores are aimed at city dwellers who want to pick up their purchases on foot, by scooter or by bike instead of having them delivered. Helping shoppers transport their purchases in a sustainable way rather than by car is precisely the goal of this format. To that end, carry bags, bike bags, cooler bags can be purchased on site, and shopping carts can be borrowed. There is also a recycling point where customers can return packaging directly. Purchases can be picked up the day after the order is placed, with a service fee of just under six euros.
Delivery service without delivery personnel
Another Colruyt Group test involves the self-driving delivery vehicle CLEVON 1, which is designed to bring purchases ordered online to customers’ homes. Since November 2022, the autonomous vehicle, built by Estonian company Clevon, has covered 1,000 kilometers within Londerzeel. From January 2023, test drives were followed by test deliveries to customers. The electric vehicle can drive completely autonomously, monitored by a tele-operator and controlled remotely if necessary. The combination of cameras, long-range radars, image processing software and machine learning enables safe and autonomous driving, even on busy roads.
Tom De Prater, Business Unit Manager for Collect&Go, explains the relevance of this innovation for the company: “In a rapidly changing e-commerce context, we are […] constantly looking for ways to organise the ‘last mile’ as efficiently and sustainably as possible. There is already a worldwide shortage of drivers, the cost of those last kilometres is sky-high and mobility in cities is a real challenge. Investing in innovation, new solutions and state-of-the-art technologies is therefore crucial.“
Urban retail and commercial logistics face a variety of challenges. How do you design shopping experiences and fulfillment offerings that are sustainable, energy-efficient, traffic-friendly, reliable, affordable, and attractive to the urban population? Colruyt Group is actively seeking new answers to this complex question.