I’m meeting my friend Rohit after what seems like decades! Rohit was my UG classmate and we did our BE course together, where we would talk and discuss start-up ideas all the time! “Automated supermarkets are exactly what it sounds like. Imagine a grocery shopping trip where you can walk into a supermarket, pick up whatever your shopping list requires and just leave. No cashier and no queues. And there is one like that right here, in Kochi!” This is what Rohit tells me when we were reminiscing all our college time discussions because since then, life has had other plans for us, while Rohit was doing his masters in Kerala University, I was stuck in a 9-5 job.
So apparently a fully-automated store? That was exactly the concept of ‘Watasale’, launched in 2018 by an Indian start-up in Kochi, located at the city’s Gold Souk Grande Mall.
The store which is along similar lines of the Amazon Go stores in the US had been like a dream project for five friends who come from technology and retail backgrounds. They took around 3 years of brainstorming and trial runs in a garage before finally launching the store.
At the store, customers would not have to stand in long-winding queues and can get hands-on experience of what cashier-less shopping feels like
In order to enter the store and get past the mechanical gate, shoppers will have to install the company’s official app from the Android Play Store. On downloading the app, you can scan a QR code generated on the app, and you’re good to go.
This whole concept is a first of its kind in India and the technology that the store is based on is called the ‘just-walk-out’ technology and runs on a combination of Artificial Intelligence (AI), computer vision and sensor fusion, which is the same kind of technology that is installed in self-driving cars.
With the said technology like computer vision, there could be privacy concerns for some people but addressing that, Richu, the COO, replied saying “Though we use computer vision, we don’t use facial recognition. Instead, we depend on multiple classifications based on AI and identify the customer based on the algorithm. The customer or their mobile phone is not tracked,” The collected data also helps to give out complete information on the store’s inventory. So even before walking into the store, customers can find out whether the product they want is available at the store or not. And in terms of security for the store, it can only be safer as it cuts the risk of shoplifting
The store at the Gold Souk Grande is fairly small, with two racks on either side of the store, one for the toiletries and the other with the grocery items. Once you’re in the store, you can pick up the items you require, place them in your bag and just walk out. The total price amount for the items you have taken will automatically get deducted from your account through credit card, online banking, or an integrated wallet.
It is truly a simple process! So we could not disagree when Rajesh Malamal, the chief marketing officer of the company said that “This is the future of shopping. Though this a pilot run, this is a live store. The footfalls are just picking up, but we want to give people the ultimate automated shopping experience.”
And even though the store does not require a cashier, for now, the shopping experience isn’t entirely impersonal as store assistants have been appointed to help customers get familiar with the way the technology works.
Apart from the inquisitive shopper, it has also been attracting students. “They are interested in AI and computer vision and want to experience it,” Richu says.
And all this really made us wonder, Rohit was telling me, that what if we had thought about all this during that time when we were pursuing BE Course. Because if you think about it, Watasale has really caused a disruption in the retail sector, with a future of endless possibilities. Tomorrow automated stores have the potential to be deployed in apartment complexes, housing areas, workplaces, and so on.
It’s a very interesting concept that Rohit with a smirk on his face, tells me he’s going to be their competition. “Well, I hope you’ve found someone half as good as me at Kerala University, to have brainstorming sessions with?” I ask him with a sarcastic tone.