Is Whole Foods Launching Ultra-Smart Carts? Not Exactly

A shopping cart prototype—which follows customers around the store, scans products and flags shopping list discrepancies, completes payment in-aisle, includes voice-recognition and, heaven help us, talks—is being touted by Microsoft as under development for the Whole Foods chain. Whole Foods, however, has a very different take.

The Jetsons-friendly cart was demoed Monday (Feb. 27) at a Microsoft event called TechForum, where various cutting-edge projects were showcased. The Microsoft hook is that the RFID-equipped cart is using Microsoft's Kinect sensor for Windows. The cart is actually using a Samsung Windows 8 tablet along with a UPC scanner, according to Will Hurley, general manager at Chaotic Moon Labs, the Texas vendor that created the system.

The cart certainly has some interesting potential—and drawbacks—but one key player that is not buying into the short-term need for the cart is Whole Foods, despite the Whole Foods logo having been prominently displayed on the cart at the Microsoft demo.

"It's an experiment at this point. It's not even quite a pilot even, as it's not something we're currently planning to try out in stores," said Whole Foods spokesperson Libba Letton.

"The tech development company [Chaotic Moon Labs] approached us about it and we offered them a shopping cart to try the software with," Letton said, adding that "this is the kind of innovation we always keep our eye on."

The testing began in mid-February at an Austin Whole Foods store where shoppers have tried it out, said Phil Wheat, manager at Chaotic Moon Labs.

The Microsoft demo, which happened to be captured (in part) by GeekWire, shows that the cart is supposed to follow customers around the store.

It's not clear what practical advantages that offers customers, and the image of many of these carts trying to follow many customers in narrow shopping aisles has a frightening bumper-car feel to it. As if to emphasize this point, the video of the demo shows that the cart didn't even move as it was supposed to on an empty stage.

Wheat said the demo was performed by a Microsoft employee and that the need for a different cart forced last-minute recalibrations, which caused the maneuvering glitch.

From a practical standpoint, calculating how to make the cart move precisely in close spaces is complex and difficult, and potentially needless. But because Chaotic Moon is doing this—at this point—purely as a research project, the team wanted to push the envelope on what could be done.

This experimental mode has made the cart impractical for retail for many reasons. For example, the carts have a bit of a Dracula quality to them, in that they can die when exposed to direct sunlight. That means no parking lots, avoiding large windows and avoiding large skylights.The problem is with how Kinect finds people it needs to follow. Kinect puts out a field of infrared dots with a laser and looks at the resultant distortion, Wheat said. "Above a certain light level, it washes out those dots," he said. In effect, it would make the customer suddenly invisible to the cart.

Avoiding parking lots is probably a good idea anyway. The carts won't likely take well to rain or snow. Besides, the Kinect portion costs about $150, the motor system about $1,000. And then there's the cost of the tablet and the cart itself. Yeah, you probably don't want shoppers leaving the store with them.

There's also a question of whether customers in an environmentally friendly chain such as Whole Foods would appreciate wasting energy on a battery-powered cart. The current carts run on a pair of 12-volt batteries (that's mostly for the motor and is above and beyond the power needs of the tablet) and the testing model will use up all of that juice within 2 to 3 hours, Wheat said.

The cart's interface with the customer seems to be primarily through speaking. Again, that's nice in a demo. But in a crowded aisle full of rush-hour shoppers, we're not so sure the cacophony of a dozen carts talking past each other would be optimal. Beyond the annoyance, it would likely undermine any store attempts at creating a pleasant, music-enhanced shopping environment.

Also, what if one customer's cart reacted to a verbal instruction intended for a different cart? That could create a different type of chaos with well-meaning customers, let alone what a not-so-well-meaning person could do to make trouble. (Hey! Why is everyone looking at me?)

Wheat said his team is also concerned about store aisles crowded with shoppers and then "having all of the carts talking at once." Chaotic Moon Labs is trying to at least help the units know which voice they are supposed to obey.

"The carts themselves have microphone arrays" and they calculate the angle that its master's voice should be coming from.

Now to the good stuff. The consumer begins this cart interaction by showing the cart his/her loyalty card, which the cart apparently detects via an RFID reader.

That's another heads-up that this is an odd fit for Whole Foods. The $10 billion chain, with 317 stores in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, shuns loyalty cards. Heck, last year the chain swore off accepting checks. Why? "We simply don't want the burden of having all that information," Letton said at the time.

But this cart seems to have no such problem with data retention. It leads the customer through a journey of fulfilling her already submitted shopping list, presumably created through a mobile app or on a Web site and wirelessly accessed by the cart.As each item is selected, it's scanned by the cart. This triggers several actions. First, the item is checked against the shopping list. Second, the item is queued for payment. And third, the item is virtually crossed off the shopping list.

In the Microsoft demo, the cart flagged that the pasta scanned had gluten in it and the cart thought the shopper had sought gluten-free. (The demo said the cart knew of the gluten conflict, because it was indicated on the shopping list. But such preferences—low sodium, no nuts, milk rather than dark chocolate, etc.—could also be part of the program preference the customer could have selected at initial setup.) It then told the shopper the exact aisle and shelf where the gluten-free pasta was housed, as it presumably has access to frequently updated planograms.

The cart then announces that the shopping list is complete. When the customer indicates that she is done shopping, the cart asks to charge everything to the customer's account. Another verbal command tells the cart to stop following the customer.

If that last command is not obeyed, that could be a nicely humorous situation. How far would the cart go in following the customer?

Given that the cart can't go out in the parking lot, there is a logistical issue. If a shopper has a very full cart of groceries and she wants to bring the cart to her car, will she have to transfer all of her groceries from the ultra-smart cart to a dumb cart that store management will permit to play outside?

Speaking of security, the demo didn't address the typical in-aisle payment loss-prevention issues: How would a grocer verify that the items in the cart had all been paid for? Does the cart beam the data to a loss-prevention person stationed at the door with a tablet? Is spot-checking used?

Again, spot-checking is the type of tactic that stores such as Whole Foods—and Trader Joe's and Nordstrom's—would be very hesitant to adopt.

As for the relationship between Chaotic Moon and Whole Foods, Chaotic Marketing Director Jonathan Carroll's comments pretty much agree with Whole Foods'.

"Chaotic Moon imagined and developed this entirely on our own, and sought a partner to assist with in-store testing and prototyping. Whole Foods was an ideal partner, one we already have a professional relationship with, and they agreed to work with us in prototyping this proof of concept and in testing it in-store at their flagship location here in Austin," Carroll said in an E-mail. "We are not developing this for Whole Foods, we are developing it for ourselves in conjunction with Whole Foods."