Why Grocers Can't Afford to Ignore Shelf-Edge Technology

Today's solutions address experience, data, retail media and more
Emily Crowe
Multimedia Editor
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The Looma Project
The Looma Project has introduced its Loop network to several food retailers to tell supplier stories and help shoppers make informed decisions about what they're purchasing.

Enhancing the customer experience at brick-and-mortar retail stores has been top of mind for some time, and has become increasingly important as consumers steadily grow more comfortable returning to in-person shopping. The shelf edge is undoubtedly the next frontier for retailers to grab customers’ attention, as this ever-more-important touchpoint can encompass everything from pricing and promotions to messaging and product information.

Today’s cutting-edge shelf solutions, though, go far beyond dynamic price tags and pretty signs. Artificial intelligence, computer vision and other technology are being used to check stock, tell supplier stories, and even collect actionable data on both products and customers.

Advanced Technology, Advanced Applications

While retailers and shoppers alike benefit from the enhanced customer experience that applications such as electronic labels and smart sensors provide, even greater gains are being made across organizations, thanks to shelf-edge strategies that employ today’s most advanced technology. Austin, Texas-based Pensa Systems, for example, uses artificial intelligence paired with computer vision to give a three-dimensional view of the shelf that tells retailers everything from its current condition to management over time. A simple walkthrough of the aisles with a smart device equipped with Pensa’s app can capture video that in turn digitally reconstructs entire shelves.

[Read more: "Walmart Canada Brings AI to Shelf Edge"]

Pensa’s turnkey solution eliminates the potentially high cost of retrofitting stores or purchasing equipment, and can also replace traditional manual labor in the aisles, including time-consuming gap scans. “The level of accuracy that we get is significantly higher than other solutions out there,” affirms Mark Abernathy, head of retail at Pensa. 

New York-based Perch Interactive, meanwhile, uses patented sensing technologies to analyze in-store customer behavior to detect which products they’re interacting with to respond with a highly personalized digital message or application. The company offers immersive experiences and product-level information to customers through a digital display.

“I think about it, on one hand, by instrumenting these clicks at the shelf, that we’re uniting each physical product with the digital content that goes with it to create the best of physical and digital shopping,” says Perch CEO Trevor Sumner. “Then the second piece of it is we now really can see how people click at the shelf and what content changes the way they click at the shelf.”

Also offering an immersive product experience at the shelf is Loop, from Durham, N.C.-based The Looma Project. According to Chief Creative Director Ned Brown, Loop is a network of smart tablets installed at-shelf in grocery stores — these currently include Harris Teeter, Lowes Foods, H-E-B and Schnuck Markets — to connect shoppers to the people who made their products via authentic storytelling or education

“This means genuine, narrative-led stories, or experts sharing information about products — not ads,” Brown explains. “Our displays essentially serve as micro discovery hubs where you get to see the person who made your product, hear the story behind a cool brand, or learn things like the difference between a Hazy and a West Coast IPA.”

Purina worked with Perch Interactive
Purina worked with Perch Interactive to help pet owners receive highly personalized digital messages about Purina products.

Going Beyond the Shelf

While these solutions and others help ensure that products are in stock and that shoppers have the information they need to make informed decisions, the benefits go far beyond the obvious. For Pensa, data and shelf intelligence monetization are big pieces of the puzzle that grocers can use to their advantage.

The data gleaned from Pensa’s platform can help streamline efficiency and labor, and also create actionable insights between shelf scanning and inventory systems and more. According to Abernathy, this data can also be used for monetization as an alternative revenue stream that eventually allows grocers to invest in things like lower prices.

“Efficiency is great, and everybody wants to improve efficiency,” he notes. “Data monetization, and how you take your data and partner with brands to create better in-stock and drive net margin dollars to the retailer, is key.”

Perch’s Sumner explains that the company’s solution creates myriad benefits for each stakeholder within the grocery ecosystem. “The shopper wins because they have the information that they need to make better decisions, and it’s a more enjoyable experience,” he says. “The retailers get more data, not only about how to improve the experience, but also about the shoppers. And the brands have the ability to differentiate from their competition and create a meaningful connection with shoppers.”

He adds: “Everyone wins in this ecosystem, and it’s really just a matter of how quickly we can start integrating these technologies so you get the best of both digital and physical shopping.”

“We live in a category that tremendously values experience, education and convenience,” explains Kenny Endermuhle, manager of shopper innovation and experience for St. Louis-based Purina, who worked with Perch on a customer experience at retail. “To me, this solution is all about discovery, inspiration and enhancing the emotional connection between not only the pet and the owner, but also the retailer and the shopper.”

For its part, Looma aims to help grocers drive incremental media revenue through Loop, which Brown notes was deliberately designed to improve the shopper’s experience, connecting them to the people who make their products and sharing helpful information to inform purchasing decisions.

According to Cole Johnson, founder and CEO of Looma: “It’s not hard to install screens and sell ad space to the highest bidder, but it usually results in a poor shopper experience — no one wants to watch ads while they grocery shop! The crux of [Looma] lies in producing educational, story-driven content — content that enables shoppers to see the farmer who grew their veggies, learn the difference between a Pinot Grigio and a Sauv Blanc from a sommelier, or hear the story behind an emerging brand launching a new product.”

Onward and Upward

Shelf intelligence solutions are poised for exponential growth as more grocers harness technology not only to create a digital-first operations strategy often led by data, but also to do traditionally human tasks with greater efficiency and accuracy. “I think the future of the shelf is going to be reactive, contextual, marry the best of both physical shopping and digital shopping, and be powered by data,” Sumner predicts.

According to Abernathy, Pensa’s technology is preparing to expand further into retail, and it’s only getting smarter. “Our technology tweaks are coming fast and furious,” he says. “We’re always updating in a lot of different ways — speed of capture, the devices we operate on, how the data is used.”

Abernathy goes on to note: “If, as a retailer, you haven’t embraced this yet and you don’t have a data-sharing and monetization strategy for shelf intelligence, you’re behind already. Those extra margin dollars are going to be reallocated by savvy retailers, and they’re going to invest them in prices to take your customers. If you haven’t done it, it’s just a race to the bottom.” 

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