Sobeys unveils Canada's 1st smart grocery cart, promising a 'frictionless' shopping experience

The humble shopping cart, long known for squeaky wheels and uneven steering, is undergoing a high-tech makeover at a grocery store in Oakville, Ont.

The high-tech devices allow customers to shop, weigh and pay for their food

Ahmed Beshry, co-founder of cart manufacturer Caper, said the carts will soon be able to recommend items and help consumers shop for specific recipes. (Nick Boisvert/CBC)

The humble shopping cart, long known for squeaky wheels and uneven steering, is undergoing a high-tech makeover at a suburban grocery store west of Toronto.

Grocery giant Sobeys Inc. unveiled what it calls Canada's first ever "smart" shopping cart at its store in Oakville, Ont., on Wednesday.

The carts feature multiple cameras, a scanner, scale and payment system. A touchscreen just above the push bar displays on-board items and in-store promotions.

Sobeys executive Mathieu Lacoursiere said the new devices are more than a gimmick, and that they'll make the traditional checkout experience "frictionless and seamless for our customers.

"Think about the shopping cart; it hasn't changed for dozens if not hundreds of years," he added.

The store in Oakville's Glen Abbey neighbourhood will roll out 10 of the new smart carts as part of a pilot project. They'll be available to customers in mid-November following a staff training period.

Sobeys owns or franchises more than 1,500 grocery stores across Canada, including those under the Safeway, IGA, FreshCo, Foodland and Thrifty Foods banners. The company has not yet revealed plans to expand the smart cart program.

A touchscreen displays items inside the cart and promotions for other products. (Nick Boisvert/CBC)

How it works

The carts — easily distinguished by Sobeys branding and white plastic fairings — are slightly smaller than their analog predecessors, but significantly more capable.

For items with a barcode, a customer simply scans the code and drops the item inside the cart.

Produce and bulk items priced according to weight can similarly be tossed inside the cart, where a scale that runs under the length of the basket calculates a price. It resets after each item is added.

Customer Stuart Eddy said he was impressed after adding a bag of bulk almonds to a smart cart that was already full of groceries. He said the interface was intuitive and fast.

"It's better than the self-checkout," he said with some surprise. "It's fantastic."

'Anything that speeds up the overall process is something that you want to do,' said Sobeys customer Stuart Eddy. (Grant Linton/CBC)

Software updates expected within the next year will allow the cart to recognize items via basket-facing cameras, meaning customers won't have to scan them.

Caper, the New York-based company that manufactures the carts, says the devices will also use artificial intelligence and machine learning to recommend ingredients for specific recipes and complementary items.

For example, Caper co-founder Ahmed Beshry said a customer could add a pack of spaghetti to the cart, at which point the screen might suggest a pasta sauce to go with it.

The goal, he said, is to create "the perfect shopper experience."

'A step further' than the competition

The Sobeys smart carts are rolling out as major retailers across North American are competing to improve the traditional checkout experience.

Last year, Amazon opened its first checkout-free grocery store in Seattle, which uses an array of cameras to track what shoppers remove from shelves as they move through the store. Shoppers are billed after leaving the store with credit cards already on file.

Beshry said the Sobeys smart carts go "a step further" than the Amazon system, since the carts will be able to recommend food and locate items within the store.

"We can actually interact with the customer as they're shopping," he told CBC Toronto.

In Canada, self-checkout kiosks have also become the norm in many grocery and drug stores, though some customers have expressed frustration at increasing retail automation and the threat of job losses.

Sobeys says 'it's not about cutting' jobs

Sobeys insists the smart carts are not intended to permanently displace human workers. Instead, the company says the technology will allow employees to spend more time interacting with customers.

"We're actually able to free up some employees … to be on the floor answering customers, talking about the food, helping them choose a recipe or a product," Lacoursiere said.

"It's not about cutting."

But some Sobeys customers have doubts, and envision a future shopping experience with fewer human workers around.

"It probably would take away jobs, and it's really sad," said Maria Balay, who avoids the store's existing self-checkout kiosks.

Her husband said he, too, enjoys talking to staff at the store, but he was nonetheless impressed by the cart.

"I'll have to try it a few times," Yamandu Balay said. "And if I like it, I'll definitely use it."