An innovation and technology update from Paul Wilkinson, Head of Technology Research at Tesco Labs.
In May, Tesco made its first delivery by robot. The 4mph device, which resembles a coolbox on wheels, is equipped with cameras and GPS technology, and can travel to within three miles of a store or delivery hub while the shopper monitors its progress via their smartphone.
Also during May, Tesco’s mobile app introduced filtered food searches for customers, to reflect each customer’s dietary requirements and allergies.
As it strives to meet evolving customer demand, the UK’s biggest retailer is taking technological innovation suitably seriously; and much of the groundwork is laid by its R&D powerhouse, Tesco Labs.
“Our job is to find the best technology out there, to make life easier for Tesco’s colleagues and customers,” declares Paul Wilkinson, Head of Technology Research at Tesco Labs, who spoke to Retail Connections at RBTE last month.
Paul took the opportunity to discuss some of the areas of automated shopping his team has been exploring in its bid to inspire the retailer’s stakeholders and build “a culture of innovation across the business”.
One-touch-purchase buttons, such as Amazon Dash, may be everywhere one looks – Paul says there are around 300 in the US – but how applicable is the one-touch shortcut technology to Tesco, where customer orders tend to be sizeable and complex?
Tesco Labs trialled an order button with a large sample of customers, and received a fairly muted response.
“After week one of our trial, only a couple of customers were still pushing it to process their basket,” says Paul, who sees the scope of buttons as limited.
“We’re certainly not going to get into the world of delivering single items of grocery.”
“We saw a much bigger success rate with barcode scanners,” comments Paul, whose team developed a multi-purpose scanning device which customers can use at home to capture barcodes and add items to their online shopping list.
“I think part of the reason it was so successful is that it doesn’t change how people shop that much. Anyone unsure of how well it’s working can check their basket before it’s processed, just to make sure it’s accurate.”
Rules are crucial to the development of grocery shopping selection processes, says Paul, who describes Tesco’s IFTTT (if this then that) program, which helps automate and interpret customer choices. These include regular purchases, automatic substitutions, and requests to be notified by SMS or email should an item’s price change – the most popular rule is ‘add if price drops’. Selected items are then added to the basket, to be sent out with the next available delivery.
This advanced selection routine enables purchases to be triggered by date – when it’s time for fresh milk, for example, or if the customer needs to order a cake for someone’s birthday.
Tesco Labs aims to “put the customer at the centre of a connected ecosystem”, and is constantly developing solutions with the smart home in mind.
Paul notes that automatic ordering will gain most traction in instances where the purchase is a “boring” one; such as dishwasher tablets.
“At home, I have a smart meter ‘on steroids’,” says Paul, “which measures the usage of my appliances in detail. Over the last year my automated dishwasher tablet order ended up being just two tablets out of sync with my actual consumption – that’s pretty accurate.
“There are six washing machine manufacturers on this platform already, but we’re maybe 20 years away from everyone’s dishwasher being connected to Wi-Fi.”
Tesco’s customers have been able to connect through Amazon Echo’s Alexa to carry out their shop for some time, but this was a relatively limited service, based on a series of pre-defined order commands.
However, the rapid development of the medium, including the addition of devices from Google and Sony to the stable, means voice-controlled purchasing is one of Paul’s top priorities.
“I was an early adopter of this technology – to the extent that my daughter has never lived in a house without voice control! I find that notion so exciting,” he reveals. “We’ve just developed a solution for shopping with Google Home and, I’m pleased to say, it has a really good understanding of what I buy.”
The search terms can be as specific as the customer wishes, notes Paul. By just calling out “add eggs to my Tesco basket”, “get more handwash”, or “add AA batteries”, the customer can fill their online shopping basket while on the go.
There’s no risk that different family members will double-up on orders, either; duplicate items elicit an alert, and must be explicitly added.
“We think voice for groceries will be a really big thing for the future,” says Paul.
And this is just the beginning – voice-controlled devices take on a new dimension when cameras and screens are thrown into the mix.
“You can’t employ a menu-based system for voice, so it’s all about interpretation; but you can take in a lot more information visually, so the combination of voice and image is going to be really interesting.”