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Why did an Indian retail firm go cashier-less, and how did they manage to do it?

Watasale Store at Kochi: Inside images.

Watasale (pronounced ‘what a sale’) is India’s first cashier-less store that’s opened up in Kochi, Kerala. You need to follow three simple steps: download its app, open it and scan the unique QR code while entering the store. That’s it. You can now pick the items you need, and you can pay for via different online payment options.

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Subhash S, CEO & CTO, Watasale, shared that he was inspired to attempt this because of the media attention received by Amazon Go. “We started working on the technology in the start of 2015. It was after the announcement by Amazon that they were going to bring something similar to our technology, we were reinstated about our correct direction”, he confides.

The challenges

The major challenge was identifying the customer and the purchased items. They didn’t want to implement RFID tag as it would hinder the basic concept of pick up and take away. The scalability of daily grocery items was also a roadblock as they come in all size and shape packaging. Also, depending and trying solely singular technologies like camera verification, sensors or tagging was reducing the success percentage to 50-60%.

Buzz of enthusiastic customers outside Watasale Store

The solution?

It’s a combination of different technologies that have enabled this dream to become a reality, and these include: QR codes, computer vision, sensor fusion, deep learning, and AI.

The QR code which you get on your mobile screen as soon as you log in to the Watasale app acts as a unique identification for you. As soon as you scan it on the entrance the system registers that you have entered the store.

These cameras provide the vision to the system, but they are fixed such that the customer privacy is not compromised (no facial recognition). Sensor fusion is the combination of different sensors – proximity sensor, motion sensor, weight sensors. As soon as you pick up an item, multiple sensors are used to complement the computer vision. Pressure, stress, light sensors used in this complete the technology stack. The combination of sensor fusion and computer vision gives credibility to the results.

These sensors smoothly integrate into the store. They generate data for the AI-powered system to make decisions.

And, then AI and deep learning are work like icing on the cake. Deep learning is used to analyse the interaction with the customers and the store.

The CEO also said that the mobile application and its wallet system play a major role because as one exit, he/she may pay through various wallet payment methods or credit cards. It will pop-up, otherwise, as a pending payment on the app. He added that as they wanted customers to easily experience this all-new system of a cashier-less store, they have not put up the prepaid bar. However, he hinted at its inclusion in the future.

The preparation

The idea of autonomous store working on AI for hassle-free shopping budded back in 2015. Till 2016 in-house beta testing of the system was initiated. Hundreds of test cases were done and studied. The required improvements were then followed up and different scenarios were fed by real user engagements. One of the improvements you could see even in the demo video is that even if you pick up an item and change your mind about the purchase, you can keep it back and you won’t be charged for it.

The Watasale team

Finally, after all the tests and trials, the first live autonomous stores for public preview was set up at a technology event in Kochi in 2018. And, on August 31st, Watasale launched its first store in Kochi.

This is one shopping experience all techies would be eagerly looking forward to. And, hopefully, we won’t have to go to Kochi for it.

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