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Aisle 24 offers cashierless convenience in a compact space

Photos by Daniel Alexander

Photos by Daniel Alexander

When John Douang was growing up his parents owned a convenience store. That first-hand insight shaped his thinking about the sector—and ultimately led to the establishment of Canada’s first micro self-serve c-stores.

 “My parents exposed me to what it was like to operate a small business and what it was like to be part of a small commercial community,” says Douang. Both facets of the business appealed to him. 

What didn’t appeal: being tied down to one location for set times. “My dad worked 14 hours a day. If he wanted to take us on vacation, he had to close the store,” says Douang. 

Screen Shot 2020-03-10 at 12.28.46 PMSo John, his wife Marie Yong, and his brother Josh Douang launched what would ultimately become Aisle 24. What started as an automated grocery vending business has become a new way for customers to conveniently buy what they want, when they want, where they want.  “Our concept is hyper local, ultra-convenience,” says Douang.

Two features stand out about the business, established in 2016 as Unattended Markets. First, while the c-stores offer customers everything from prepared foods to staples to beverages to over-the-counter medications, there is one thing they don’t proffer: cashiers. Aisle 24 is completely self-service.

Screen Shot 2020-03-10 at 12.30.06 PMThe other big thing to note about the store concept, now being franchised in Toronto, is its small size. The stores range from 300 to 600 sq. ft. and are located in existing residential spaces, primarily college campuses, condos and apartment buildings. “Go to any residential community building and you will find space that is underutilized or not used at all. Our small footprint allows us to go into these spaces,” says Douang, president of the company.

And, for those really tight for space, Aisle 24 offers convenience in a box with its fully automated, temperature-controlled vending system that dispenses almost anything you find in a standard convenience store—even milk, bread, eggs and ready-to-eat meals.

Screen Shot 2020-03-10 at 12.28.27 PMCustomers wanting to shop at Aisle 24 download an app and register. Their credit card number is then linked to their account and access to the store, often in the building where they live, is provided through their smartphone. “Think of us as a futuristic tuck shop,” says Douang, who worked in the tech industry for more than a decade before opening Aisle 24. 

He notes that aside from lottery tickets and tobacco, which Aisle 24 does not provide, “there is no limitation on the products we carry. The only limitation is size.”

Aisle 24 stores, of which there are currently five in Toronto, resemble the traditional c-store in many ways. There are open shelves stocked with products and coolers filled with refrigerated and frozen products. Unlike many older c-stores, however, Aisle 24 has a thoroughly modern feel. “Our brand is very fresh, very new,” says Douang. “There is a certain demographic that is attracted to that—students and young professionals.”

Screen Shot 2020-03-10 at 12.29.50 PMFor those demographics and many others, the expediency offered by Aisle 24 is more than nice to have, it’s necessary to have. Many building owners and college dorms realize having a c-store on the premises is an important selling feature. “Today’s residents expect more than just a clean, safe property to come home to. They demand convenience that caters to their busy lifestyles,” Douang notes, adding that it is not unusual for Aisle 24 customers to make purchases in their pyjamas. 

After all, home is only a few feet away. 

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Tech talk

  • With remote monitoring, Aisle 24 keep a close eye on inventory, expiry dates, and other operational information, typically visiting to restock and clean two or three times a week, or more based on usage.
  • Aisle 24 uses video monitoring to discourage theft and reconciles inventory each week to closely track shrinkage.


Are micro-markets the next industry disruptor?

While micro-markets represent a small piece of the convenience industry, that’s changing—fast. It’s expected there will be 35,000 micro-market locations in the U.S. by the year 2022, according to research firm Bachtelle and Associates. And, those micro-markets are expected to generate more than $1.6 billion in revenue over the next 10 years.

Ipsos’ FSM (Foodservice Monitor) tracking study reports that micro-markets in Canada, while still dominated by vending machines, accounts for as much as 3% of foodservice traffic.  While micro-markets’ share has increased in year-over-year tracking, dominated by growth in Ontario, this channel remains a relatively unknown player.

However, Amazon Go is reportedly planning to open 3,000 new locations by 2021, while Longo’s Pronto Eats, which is a small-square footage cashless grocery experience in downtown Toronto, has more locations in the works.  

“It would be hard to imagine that there are not a number of other retailers or tech companies eyeing this new concept, particularly given their reportedly high margin targets,” says Kathy Perrotta, vice-president, Ipsos Canada. “Beyond the opportunity for profiting from this concept is also the opportunity to connect younger consumers to a convenience-oriented fully digitized food shopping experience.”

Read Perrotta’s take“Micro-markets, major potential”in the January/February issue.

AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

Amazon opens cashierless grocery store

AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

Amazon is aiming to kill the supermarket checkout line.

The online retailing giant is opening its first cashierless supermarket, the latest sign that Amazon is serious about shaking up the $800 billion grocery industry.

At the new store in Seattle, shoppers can grab milk or eggs and walk out without checking out or opening their wallets. Shoppers scan a smartphone app to enter the store. Cameras and sensors track what’s taken off shelves. Items are charged to an Amazon account after leaving.

Called Amazon Go Grocery, the new store is an expansion of its 2-year-old chain of Amazon Go convenience stores. At 10,400 sq. ft., the supermarket is more than five times the size of the smaller stores, and stocks more items beyond the sodas and sandwiches found at Amazon Go. The new market stocks fresh baked bread, blood oranges, butternut squash and other food to whip up dinner or stock the fridge.

Amazon is not new to groceries. It made a splash in 2017 when it bought Whole Foods and its 500 stores. It’s also been expanding its online grocery delivery service. But it’s still far behind rival Walmart, the nation’s largest grocer, which has more than 4,700 stores. Walmart has also found success with its online grocery service, that lets shoppers buy online and then pickup at stores.

Amazon plans to open another type of grocery store in Los Angeles sometime this year, but the company said it won’t use the cashier-less technology at that location and has kept other details under wraps.

At the new Seattle store, families can shop together with just one phone scanning everyone in. Anything they grab from the shelf will be added to the tab of the person who signed them in. But shopper’s shouldn’t help a stranger reach something from the top shelf: Amazon warns that grabbing an item for someone else means you’ll be charged for it.

While cashierless stores remove a major annoyance for customers, waiting in long lines to pay, it also takes away parts of supermarket shopping that some customers may miss. There’s no one to bag groceries at Amazon Go Grocery. Instead, Amazon gives out reusable bags so shoppers can fill them as they shop. And there’s no deli counter, butcher or fishmonger. Instead, packaged sliced ham, steaks and salmon fillets are sold in refrigerated shelves.

Other retailers and startups have been racing to create similar cashier-less technology. Earlier this month, for example, 7-Eleven said it is testing a cashierless store inside its Irving, Texas, offices.

Amazon declined to say if it plans to open more cashierless grocery stores. Since it launched its first Amazon Go store in 2018, the Seattle-based company has opened about 25 of them in big cities, such as Chicago, New York and San Francisco.


Amazon Go expands foodservice offerings

Amazon-Go-walking-in_500-x-400Amazon is to sell to hot food and espresso at select Amazon Go locations in the United States.

Its store in San Francisco’s Financial District is closed for renovations, as the company prepares to expand its foodservice offering beyond grab-and-go options, according to The San Francisco Chronicle.

It appears Amazon is rolling out new offerings at other locations, too. One of its Chicago sites is also closed for renovations. According to its website: “This Amazon Go location will be temporarily closed for renovation. We’ll be back with new features and flavors in the Spring.”

Amazon Go operates 25 locations in major urban centres, including New York, Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco. Another is slated to open soon in Seattle.

When it introduced the concept, Amazon laid out ambitious plans, targeting 3,000 Amazon Go convenience stores by 2021.

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7-Eleven tests cashierless store in the U.S.

Screen Shot 2020-02-06 at 4.02.33 PM7-Eleven Inc. is debuting a cashierless store at its corporate headquarters in Irving.

During the pilot, the 700-sq. ft. non-traditional store is available to 7-Eleven employees.

The shopping experience is simple: Employees download an app, sign up, check in at the store, enter the store, shop and exit. A detailed receipt appears in the app automatically after he or she exits.

A proprietary mixture of algorithms and predictive technology enables the store system to separate individual customers and their purchases from others in the store, according to the c-store retailer.

“Ultimately, our goal is to exceed consumers’ expectations for faster, easier transactions and a seamless shopping experience,” said Mani Suri, 7-Eleven senior vice president and chief information officer. “Introducing new store technology to 7-Eleven employees first has proven to be a very productive way to test and learn before launching to a wider audience. They are honest and candid with their feedback, which enables us to learn and quickly make adjustments to improve the experience.

“This in-house, custom built technology by 7-Eleven engineers is designed for our current and future customers. We continue to innovate, and coupling fresh, innovative, healthy food options with a frictionless shopping experience could be a game-changer,” he added.

A cashierless concept marks another innovative technological advancement from 7-Eleven. Last year, it introduced Mobile Checkout, allowing customers to skip the line and pay using their smartphone. The c-store operator also added 7NOW Pins to its mobile app. The proprietary technology allows customers to order the delivery service to public locations that may not have traditional addresses, like parks, beaches and more.

“Retail technology is evolving at a rapid pace and customer expectations are driving the evolution,” said 7-Eleven President and CEO Joe DePinto. “Our team is dedicated to continuing 7-Eleven’s legacy of innovation with industry-leading digital solutions. Most recently that has included our award winning 7Rewards loyalty platform, 7NOW on-demand delivery, mobile checkout, and now our new cashierless store.”

7-Eleven operates, franchises and/or licenses more than 70,000 stores in 17 countries, including 11,800 in North America.

Originally published at Convenience Store News.