In what could persuasively change the brick-and-mortar retail model in India, a bunch of techies from Kerala have teamed up to open the country’s first autonomous retail store in Kochi.
Branded as ‘Watasale’, the store, inaugurated last week at a popular mall in the city, does not feature any salespersons or cashiers manning the counters. Instead, it offers shoppers a unique ‘checkout-free’ experience using a combination of advanced technologies like artificial intelligence, sensor fusion and computer vision. What’s more, in less than a week of operations, the team behind ‘Watasale’ have an offer of funding and strategic partnership from one of Japan’s largest corporate groups – the Mitsui & Co Ltd.
“Back in 2015, it was a time when machine learning and artificial intelligence was really coming out. We knew any segments can be disrupted using this technology. If you look at the market structure, the retail segment was still following the age-old technologies. We found it as a ripe ground for innovation and disruptive technologies,” said Richu Jose, COO of Watasale, who teamed up with four of his friends from engineering and tech backgrounds to begin the project three years ago.
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It took the team of Watasale nearly three years of exhaustive brainstorming and countless trial sessions to get their algorithms right post which they began focusing on building up the physical infrastructure and skeletal framework of the retail store. The biggest challenge, Jose said, was to form the core technical team and the right manpower who have expertise on advanced stages of artificial intelligence. Since the team decided not to opt for external funding during the initial process, finding a financial outlet was challenging as well, he added.
The Watasale store, located at the Grand Souk Mall in Kochi, is modelled on the same technology that Amazon has used in its ‘checkout-free’ grocery store in Seattle, United States. “The core technology is the same. Amazon has done in its own fashion. We have done it our way,” said Jose.
Shoppers at the Watasale store have to download the company’s Android app from the Play Store before entering. Scanning a QR code generated on the app will help them get past the gated turnstiles into the store. At present, there are two racks on either sides of the store selling a variety of items like biscuits, soft drinks and chocolates to soap and talcum powder. The shopper can pick and choose whatever he/she wishes to purchase before coolly walking out of the store. Within five minutes of exit from the store, a detailed bill will arrive on the shopper’s phone for which payment can be done through mobile wallets, debit and credit cards.
“Right now, we have kept it open (where customers can pay later). Going further, we will have wallets where the customer will store a certain amount of money which will get auto-debited once he/she leaves the store. We are also adding an auto-debit feature from a credit card,” said Rajesh Malamal, the chief marketing officer of the company.
Company officials say computer vision and multiple sensors installed inside the store will automatically pick up signals of a product that has been purchased off a particular shelf and bill it to the right customer. For the first two weeks, they will be closely evaluating macro-data of buying patterns of shoppers to fix the glitches if necessary.
“We are not looking at the commercial side right now. We just want to prove that it is workable,” said Jose.
At the same time, he adds that the company’s revenue and tech model has been designed in such a way that it does not intrude in any way into the privacy of the shoppers. “We are only looking at big data to get analytics about the products being bought to get information about inventory. We are not venturing into anything risky that will compromise customer privacy,” he assured.
In the long run, the firm is looking to get external funding from investors which will help in scaling up the company’s tech prowess and emerge into supermarket-chain franchises. In any case, the retail sector in India has just witnessed its first major disruption and it is only going to get bigger.