Not long ago, Amazon launched its smart shopping carts called Dash Carts, which again made unmanned retail a hot topic for the public.
The best era
Dash Carts use barcodes and weight sensors for recognition. To some, this declared the failure of the computer vision strategy represented by Amazon Go. Actually this is not the case, as after all there are more and more Amazon Go stores. The first Amazon Go Grocery store opened at the beginning of this year has a total floor space of about 966 square meters and can accommodate almost 5000 items, roughly 10 times bigger than Amazon Go. This is enough to demonstrate a quantum leap in technology and how mature the model is in terms of commercial application. Launching Dash Carts is more likely to be out of commercial considerations, given that the technology is already mature, in an effort to meet different needs under different scenarios with different forms of product.
Actually the world’s first unmanned retail store purely based on computer vision was not Amazon Go. It was a store jointly launched by leading AI retail technology provider SandStar and CCOOP, a company of Hainan Airlines Group (HNA), in 2017. At that time, the entire world was overwhelmed by unmanned retail, and startups in this field were mushrooming. Everybody was moving full steam ahead to seek financing and brand exposure as much as possible. The hot money was pouring in to make the already intense competition even more intense. However, beneath the surface of prosperity, there were many stories of “bad money drives out good” and “haste makes waste”. Under such a restless environment, it was very hard for market players to calm down and polish their technologies and products.
Today, the speculators have gone along with the hype, and only a few loners who really focus on technologies and their commercial value are left. They strongly believe that AI can play a tremendous role in empowering traditional retail. SandStar, which just received funding during a new round of financing, is one of them. For them, this is the best time ever.
In 2020, the unexpected pandemic caused a huge impact on quite a few industries. Yet for unmanned retail, this also created a demand and an opportunity. To prevent the further spread of COVID-19, countries are sparing no effort to reduce personal contact and practice social distancing, leading to an enormous demand for unmanned retail and contactless shopping.
The short-term demand under the pandemic created many opportunities for the providers of unmanned retail solutions to try out their solutions in practice, and also helped customers develop a habit to some extent. This is definitely very beneficial to unmanned retail in the long run, and makes it possible for the explosive growth of the unmanned retail market to come a lot earlier. Based on all the arguments above, we have a reason to believe that unmanned retail is ushering in its best time.
The way out for unmanned retail
Founded at the end of 2016, SandStar was one of the earliest providers of unmanned retail solutions. Formerly called YI Tunnel, the company is committed to connecting technology and business. Recently, SandStar received an investment during a “Series B+” funding round, and the investor is the True Digital Group (TDG). TDG is the digital subsidiary of the True Corporation, Thailand’s leading telecom company, which is a member of the Charoen Pokphand Group (CP).
SandStar has survived the competition during the past three years to become the leader of unmanned retail today, and this is closely related to its profound understanding of unmanned retail’s essence.
For the company’s founder Yili Wu, the key point of unmanned retail is not that it is unmanned, but that if you can help merchants reduce cost and increase efficiency through technology. Being “unmanned” is just what retail outlets look like naturally after they have been upgraded to a certain level through digital solutions.
There was an argument over the technical roadmap for unmanned retail at the beginning: what was the best solution, RFID, weight sensor, static recognition or dynamic recognition? Actually the answer is obvious as long as you have a clear understanding of unmanned retail’s essence: although RFID, weight sensor and static recognition can do cashierless checkout under specific conditions, their granularity in data collection is far worse than that of dynamic recognition, and they don’t have an edge over dynamic recognition in terms of cost either. From the point of view of being data-driven and cost-effective, dynamic recognition is naturally a better option. And the direction taken by SandStar was right at the very beginning.
Following this train of thought, what is the essence of unmanned retail? It is to make the “people” and “product” in the “people-product-place” system online and digital through movement recognition and product recognition algorithms, so that they can be better matched. Based on this understanding, actually unmanned retail has a very wide range of applications, not limited to smart kiosks and unmanned convenience stores. In the future, it will be able to play a major role in consumer profiling, display optimization, intelligent restocking alert, pricing strategy, and more.
Today, these applications are already emerging. With SandStar’s Smart Kiosks for example, customer feedback proves that the intelligent alert for restocking can help to reduce the cost of restocking by 40 percent. Meanwhile, the analytical function of the Smart Kiosks can help to optimize the business strategy for various things such as merchandise selection, pricing, and display, so as to help merchants increase sales by 30 percent.
It is because of the huge room for imagination that retailers have been increasing their spending on AI in recent years. An analysis by Accenture shows that the spending of retailers on AI globally will reach $5 billion by 2022, and AI will enable the profitability of retailers and wholesalers to be increased by 60 percent by 2035.
The future is bright, but the road ahead will be bumpy. As the demand in the marketplace grows, players eyeing at the same niche market will flood in. But their real expertise varies from one to another, and it also takes time for customers to get to know them and for consumers to develop a habit. Against this backdrop, SandStar pioneered a unique approach of relying on its technologies to develop the global markets.
In 2018, SandStar made its debut at the NRF in New York, which sounded the bugle to venture into the global markets. After that, the company again attended the 2018 and 2019 GITEX (Gulf Information Technology Exhibition) and the 2020 EuroShop, to let more and more MNCs learn about its solutions for unmanned retail on the international stages.
Today, SandStar’s technologies have been adopted in 12 countries and regions, serving over 20 Fortune 500 companies, including such big names as Coca-Cola and Unilever.
The experience of SandStar has no doubt provided a new idea for its peers. But it’s not easy to make it happen and achieve success. The biggest pain of deploying technologies for unmanned retail abroad is that the implementation is very difficult and the cost of delivery is very high.
It’s well-known that retail is extremely decentralized–the stores are decentralized, the industries are decentralized, and the geographic locations are decentralized. Different industries and stores vary dramatically in terms of the shopping environment, and there must be specialized teams for customized implementation. Even the stores of the same brand are often scattered in different cities or regions. It’s already a significant challenge to just cover the market of a single country, let alone operating across the entire world.
To facilitate implementation and delivery, after completing a Series B funding round in 2019, SandStar began to step up its effort to build the global support system by building its own team on the one hand and working with local partners to build an ecosystem on the other. Mike Kiser, a senior expert of unmanned retail, is currently President of North America for SandStar.
Prior to joining SandStar, Kiser already had 32 years of retail experience. He was the former CEO of Canteen Vending Services Inc., the largest operator of vending machines in the United States, the former CMO and board member of the Compass Group, a Fortune 500 company, and the former board member of the National Automatic Merchandising Association (NAMA).
SandStar has been able to achieve such remarkable results overseas thanks to the international DNA of its team. Many key members of the team used to study abroad or work for Fortune 500 companies.
The new journey ahead
The confidence of investors and customers in SandStar comes from the company’s outstanding performance and outstanding team.
TDG, the investor in the latest funding round for SandStar, is a subsidiary of the True Corporation (the leading telecom and digital services provider in Thailand, and a member of Thailand’s CP Group). It is one of the most powerful providers of integrated digital services for business customers in Southeast Asia, dealing with cutting-edge technologies such as AI, big data, and IoT.
Prior to entering into this strategic partnership, SandStar had already collaborated with the CP Group for over two years. During the two years, SandStar kept refining its leading unmanned retail technologies, kept evolving its products, and kept expanding its customer base, to demonstrate its assiduousness and its ongoing pursuit for innovation as a technology company.
The new strategic partnership with TDG will also help to provide support for SandStar in the field of “AI+retail” and further cement its leading position in the global “AI+retail” industry.
It can be expected that, with plenty of ammunition from the latest funding round, SandStar will be able to leverage the special opportunity at the moment to accelerate its global expansion.
Unmanned retail is ushering in its best time, and SandStar is also ushering in its best time.
For more information, please visit our global website:www.sandstar.com
(Syndicated press content is neither written, verified or endorsed by ED Times)