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How Woolworths ‘walked and chewed gum’ during the pandemic

This article was originally published on Australian Financial Review.

Woolworths is rolling out a new suite of retail technology that was developed and tested when it battled to meet demand during the coronavirus pandemic.

The new technology includes weighing scales that use artificial intelligence to identify fresh produce, cameras that use image recognition and AI to scan for empty supermarket shelves, and virtual reality goggles to help train staff.

Woolworths chief executive Brad Banducci saw some of the new technology for the first time this week after visiting the retailer’s stores in Queensland.

He has not been able to visit Woolworths’ stores in Victoria or Queensland for most of the year because of the pandemic.

Australia’s largest retailer has turned its Loganholme store in Brisbane into a “smart store”, where 54 technology developments are being tested before gradually being rolled out to stores.

Mr Banducci said that despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, which stretched capacity in stores, distribution centers and online as the retailer kept up with elevated demand, Woolworths had pushed ahead with its innovation agenda.

“What I’m proud of is that we didn’t forget to innovate – it was the old walking and chewing gum at the same time, so to speak,” Mr Banducci told AFR Weekend during a tour of Woolworths’ Crows Nest store in Sydney, where some of the new technology has been installed.

Huge emergency
“Our team managed to think about the strategic agenda as well as dealing with this huge emergency – that’s what I’m most proud about,” he said. “We’ve supported it with capital but [the team] has done it without us.”

Mr Banducci said the new technology was aimed at making the shopping experience better for customers rather than reducing costs. It also helps Woolworths differentiate itself from Coles.

Weighing scales made by Sydney-based start-up Tiliter use artificial intelligence to recognize the shape and color of fruit and vegetables and are used to weigh products that do not have a QR or barcode.

They can distinguish between peaches and apricots or cauliflower and broccoli, for example, and are faster to use than traditional scales because customers do not have to skim through the alphabet to select products for weighing.

Ceiling-mounted cameras that use computer vision technology and artificial intelligence to analyze supermarket shelves are being tested in the bread aisle to pick up gaps on shelves.

They check the shelves on an hourly basis during trading hours and send data to George Weston and Allied Mills, prompting them to send merchandise teams to restock aisles at the best time of the day.

Woolworths is also rolling out its Scan & Go technology, which was developed in-house by the WooliesX digital team in collaboration with supermarkets.

Customers who download the Scan & Go app scan barcodes with their phones bag the products as they shop and pay through an app linked to their credit cards. For products that have to be weighed, they scan the product weight barcode on the smart scale screen.

Mr Banducci said Scan & Go would be rolled out to 50 Woolworths supermarkets in the second half of 2021.

“We want to give customers the option to shop the way they want to shop with us,” he said.