The ability for grocers and their service providers to be adaptive moved front and center as the coronavirus hit the United States in full force. President Donald Trump declared a national emergency on March 13, and almost instantaneously, shoppers flooded grocery stores to stock up on everything from toilet paper to pantry staples.
As social distancing and stay-at-home orders turned into the new normal, food retailers were catapulted into a position of needing to keep their employees and customers safe, all the while providing an essential service.
- As the coronavirus pandemic hit communities across the United States, the need for occupancy-counting technology quickly became apparent.
- Irisys’ SafeCount solution uses time-of-flight sensors to accurately determine the number of people entering and leaving a store, while SenSource’s SafeSpace solution was created with both a manual counting option using a smartphone or tablet and an automated option using the company’s bread-and-butter sensors.
- The benefits of monitoring store occupancy can far outlive the requirements of the COVID-19 pandemic, enabling retailers to better understand customer behavior through the collection of anonymous data.
A domino effect of grocers instituting one-way aisles and 6-foot markers started the wave, and soon occupancy rules followed. At the beginning of April, the governor’s orders in Connecticut limited occupancy to 50%, while orders in Massachusetts mandated a maximum of 40% capacity.
A number of other states have followed suit, and even more retailers have assumed the responsibility themselves, either allowing a certain number of customers per square foot or a certain percentage of their fire code occupancy.
Pen-and-paper solutions could quickly be implemented, but their shortcomings were no surprise. Grocers would have to pay a staff member, who could be used elsewhere for additional sanitation protocols, to stand at the door, making tally marks as people come and go. A shift change or need for a break could quickly lead to an inaccurate count, customers had no idea how long of a wait they would have, and only one entrance could be open at any given time.
The need for occupancy-counting technology quickly became apparent.
“With the outbreak of COVID-19, the retail landscape completely changed, probably forever,” asserts Mike Slevin, global sales and marketing director of U.K.-based Irisys. “A lot of the steps that retailers took originally around things like putting up barriers or markings on the floor help to a certain extent, but they’re now moving to the phase where they recognize the more long-term issue, and they want to put in place processes, procedures, technology.”
The Immediate Need
Irisys quickly leveraged its 20-plus years of experience in the retail analytics space, working with brands like Cincinnati-based Kroger, to create a product tailored specifically to the needs of food retailers in the age of the coronavirus. SafeCount was born, employing time-of-flight sensors, which use infrared light, to accurately determine the number of people entering and leaving a store.
An advantage of SafeCount is its easy installation, a fully stand-alone system using Irisys’s Vector 4D sensor, which runs with the software locally embedded on it and can be connected to a standard WiFi access point and any other browser-enabled devices.
Installation is quick regardless of whether you’d already been working with the company — like Kroger.
“That demonstrates the fact that these mega-brands can still be agile if they deploy the right technology,” he adds.
Youngstown, Ohio-based SenSource also started noticing an uptick in interest from grocers as the COVID-19 situation developed. The company had dabbled in occupancy counting in the past, but not as much in real time, according to Andy Clutter, SenSource’s marketing director.
Once retailers start to understand footfall, conversion and peak occupancy hours, a number of other questions come to mind: How can you align staffing and labor? How can you lay out your store better to accommodate different behaviors? How can you ensure a sufficient number of carts or baskets are available for shoppers?
“We do a lot of in-store analytics projects, where the same sensing technology can be used to do things like understand browse time, understand customer engagement with staff or with merchandise,” says Slevin. “We can look at things like providing real-time and location data of staff versus customers, wait times in lines, or dwell times at product displays.”
According to Slevin, staff detection plays a huge role in efficiency as well. Irisys is currently working on a project with self-checkouts to determine how retailers can put the right number of staff in the area to assist customers as quickly as possible. The company is also looking at baggers by monitoring their presence at the ends of lanes to make sure that there’s somebody there to actually speed up the bagging process.
Privacy concerns are also a nonissue with Irisys, because time-of-flight sensors don’t use video to detect people.
“We don’t identify customers, so there’s no concern over privacy,” Slevin affirms. “The same with staff — they’re not spying on staff. It’s all generic. It’s all anonymized.”
The technology, however, does have an additional advantage for segmenting adult shoppers from children.
“We are able to very, very accurately, to plus or minus 2 centimeters [0.79 inches], determine the height of individuals within the field of view,” Slevin says. “We can provide things like histograms showing what proportion of your customer base is segmented into those different sorts of height ranges, which you can then roughly equate with different age groups.”
Some state regulations have excluded children from counting in occupancy limits, while others haven’t. Either way, the data can be beneficial for understanding customer engagement in the long term.
As the industry scrambles to make changes needed in the current COVID-19 environment, eyes can’t focus simply on temporary fixes. Sensor technologies can promise everything from occupancy counting to customer engagement, and staff management to operational efficiencies. The solutions to today’s challenges can become the platforms for future success.