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January 3, 2024updated 04 Jan 2024 10:26am

Smallest-ever autonomous store opened by Carrefour

The AI-powered facility is the tiniest example yet of a format designed to streamline staff headcount in retail stores to the bare minimum.

By Greg Noone

French supermarket giant Carrefour has opened its smallest-ever autonomous store. The Carrefour BuyBye outlet in Zaventem, Belgium, measures just 18m2 and offers soft drinks, fruit, snacks and lunch items in refrigerators accessed through Carrefour’s BuyBye app. Announced last year, the store is one of several such facilities operated by Carrefour and the latest in a wave of similar (and larger) shops that have appeared in the UK, US and Europe in recent years. 

The store is completely unmanned and operated using a combination of AI-powered weighing scales and cameras, with computer vision algorithms embedded in the latter trained to recognise every product on display. Access to the shop, meanwhile, is provided to shoppers after they download Carrefour’s BuyBye app on their mobile device and use it to scan a QR code on the door. Items can then be obtained from the fridges by the customer and then automatically be charged to their bank accounts (payment can also be made using a contactless bank card.) 

Carrefour’s new autonomous supermarket in Zaventem, Belgium (Photo by Carrefour)

Carrefour is not the first to embrace autonomous stores

Some retailers hope that this combination of QR codes and computer vision algorithms may ultimately do away with the need to employ on-site staff altogether. Similar (and larger) facilities popped up throughout Europe in 2023, including a massive 500m2 unmanned supermarket in Lisbon, Portugal, created in collaboration with Sensei and Hewlett Packard Enterprise. Such shops have proved particularly popular in Poland, where retail conglomerate Żabka Group operates 50 such stores. 

The stores have been a boom for the company’s in-house analytics operation, its head of unmanned solutions told Sifted. “It’s like e-commerce shopping, but within brick and mortar – we can collect customer data and track the customer journey at all the stages, which allows us to build advanced analytics, including sales funnel or advanced shopping history based on events,” said Paweł Grabowski. “The data, combined with our mobile app, enable us to personalise communication, offer and even discount coupons to the customers,” 

Autonomous stores have also started appearing in the UK, with Amazon Fresh branches opening in London and Tesco trialling similar technology at its branded GetGo stores. However, not everyone is convinced that autonomous stores represent the future of supermarkets. Last summer Swiss retail firm Valora announced that it would cease operating autonomous-only stores, instead choosing a hybrid model whereby stores would only be unmanned outside of normal operating hours. A backlash against the next technological rung down, the infamous self-service checkout, also appears to be taking place, with the British supermarket chain Booths announcing its decision to cease operating the units in 25 of its stores. 

Read more: Waitrose IT problem causes empty shelves in supermarkets

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