AI Research Above the Supermarket


On the left, the bakery. On the right, the organic store. Then the information vis-à-vis the temple. Just before the temple stands a stele, or electronic kiosk. Then we see many cashier areas, an information counter and directly behind the entrance to paradise: the temple. Where are we? We are in St. Wendel at Globus, 50 miles away from Saarbrücken (Baden-Württemberg, Germany). We are here to discuss how AI navigates the retail industry with Rouven Dörr (Globus) and Frederic Kerber (German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence, DFKI).

Shop without compromise

At Globus you can shop without any compromise – that’s the slogan on the company’s homepage. Indeed, if you let your gaze wander across the area – this is how Rouven Dörr, Head of Shopping Experience Department at Globus’ Multichannel division calls the combination of shelves, goods and services – you are overwhelmed by this very feeling: Here you can purchase everything your heart desires and beyond. And that makes you happy.

Dörr is responsible for this contentment on account of his job and takes it seriously. Very seriously indeed. He is the man who has to optimize the shopping experience for the customer – i.e., us – at Globus. But let’s not talk in imperative terms. He likes to do it with great pleasure and from within himself. He wants to perfect the shopping experience of Globus customers. And he has already achieved this very well with the stele.

Globus – that doesn’t just stand for consumerism, but for artificial intelligence. Globus – that doesn’t just stand for bakeries, olive oil, socks, pans or organic stores, but also for the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI), of which Globus is a partner. And here the circle closes and the story begins.

Elevated pulse

Globus and DFKI have been working together for many years. The cooperation is based on the awareness that all technological synergies in Saarland should be made use of. “This puts us at the cutting edge of research,” reflects Dörr. The aim is to adapt technology to the retail sector in a sensible way. And so DFKI sometimes brings research projects up and Globus supports them, for example, with data to develop prototypes.

Nutrition notes in Living Room of the Future
Nutrition notes in Living Room of the Future

The stele was once such a prototype, which has now become a tangible application. Dörr is actually an economist. After his studies, he worked as a management consultant for a while, then for many years at Deutsche Telekom in video-on-demand and IP-TV. And now, at Globus, he is responsible for the shopping experience and how it can be refined, together with new technologies such as artificial intelligence. Not alone, but – as mentioned – together with DFKI.

The future of shopping

“The future of shopping has always appealed to me. Here at Globus, the paths have not yet been trodden. And it is on this creative terrain that I help shape the future.” Sounded like a job interview. Still, you get exactly that impression of him: he is highly motivated. When we hear him say this sentence, we are sitting in the living room of DFKI’s Innovative Retail Laboratory (IRL), directly above the store in St. Wendel.

“This lab is a showroom for everyone,” says Frederic Kerber, Head of the IRL at DFKI, “who wants to know how the future of shopping could be. The showroom is all in one. Living room, lounge, marketplace, fruit store, sausage and cheese counter, apparel store, olive oil section, recycling yard, car parking, kitchen, pantry, greenhouse.”

We sit on a grey couch. “This is where the shopping experience of the future begins, in the lab’s living room or home area,” as Kerber names it. “We are doing research on shopping preparation. The mother of all beginnings is the shopping list.” And it can be accessed from anywhere in the home of the future. It can be filled by voice interaction with Alexa, by an intelligent refrigerator, a pantry or an intelligent coffee table here in the living room.

The table

The table recognizes everything on it. Can communicate with things on it and trigger an interaction with people. The table is a so-called Microsoft Surface Table. It already exists – now technologically updated for research purposes. The database behind it could also be filled with each and every EAN code. However, for research purposes, only a small part of the entire Globus product range is stored. It is important that no one should ever actively interact with technology. “Technology should adapt to the human being,” emphasizes Kerber. And that’s what they’re tinkering with at St. Wendel, for example in the larder cabinet.

The Table
The Table

Let us put ourselves in the position of any family. Let us name them the Millers. Age: whatever, children: whatever, taste: whatever. What counts is the intention of the Millers. They want to cook noodles with tomato sauce tomorrow, but the larder cabinet does not have all the ingredients for the recipe. The Millers didn’t find that out for themselves – the larder cabinet did after the family entered the recipe.

And that makes the matter clear. Father Miller goes to the store the next day on the advice of the larder cabinet and takes his empty noodle tin with him. The recipe requires rigatoni, not fusilli. Now the following happens: The man in the store refills the can and at the same time reprogrammes it so that the cabinet recognizes the new product in the can at home. Father Miller then puts his catch in the cupboard. It senses the contents and gives the green light for the recipe.

The larder cabinet

What happened there? Without Father Miller being familiar with technology at all, the cabinet supports him in his daily housework. And without the man in the store knowing about technology at all, he reprogrammed the can. Technology that adapts to the customer – an ideal situation.

And the retail group also wants to apply this principle to internal processes. With digitization and AI such as robotics, Dörr ideally wants to automate processes. And when he says that, he is naturally also thinking of the employees' equipment. Globus is taking a look at shelf replenishment for fruits and vegetables.

The larder cabinet
The larder cabinet

The outline of each individual fruit is recognized by image recognition. If a customer in the store now lifts the fruit to a place where it does not belong, it sounds the alarm and the employees can quickly restore order to the shelf. The recognition is carried out via a neural network. Imagine: an orange lies under a peach, which would consequently be indicated as a misplacement to the mobile device of an employee. The employee would immediately know what to do at the peach and orange counter: restore order. Besides, the technology counts each individual fruit and vegetable and takes stock of the fruits and vegetable situation. Flexible price reductions could thus be calculated to accelerate sales.

Research for the sausage counter

Research is also being conducted at the sausage counter. The customer says, "This sausage on the front right. No, a little bit more to the left." The seller says, "Do you mean this one here?" The customer says, "No, the one right next to it." Here comes a camera in play to detect the customer’s arm and points a light spot into the sausages or cheese counter. This flying spot always moves with the customer’s hand. The salesperson can see exactly which sausage or cheese the customer means, like a beacon.

Plastic Sausages for Research
Plastic Sausages for Research

Globus wants to improve the shopping experience. And take advantage of people’s high digital affinity. “You can’t stand still,” says Dörr. Corona, in particular, has accelerated the digitalization process. And the retail industry is also changing rapidly. “We can consider ourselves lucky today. We don’t have to start from scratch like many others in the industry, precisely because we have been doing research for a long time.”

You can't stand still

So where are the new technologies navigating the retail sector? Dörr is sure of that: It’s straight to the merging of the online and offline channel. Both will be transformed into a meaningful mix. Customer contact remains important. The stele is proof that Globus really believes what Dörr says. “Yes, the stele is for everyone. If you don’t want to use the app or other digital devices, the stele will help you and represents what you need.”

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Andrea Deinert

Journalist // Blogger for AI and Data Science // Data Science Community Liaison // Academic Liaison || Portraits opinion leaders from politics, society and research to reveal the meaning of AI and ethics for future society.

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