Spar details international tech push

Spar is in the midst of a global technology push, testing and implementing everything from checkout-free stores to digital signage, employee gamification and sensors in refrigerators.

Tom Rose, head of international operations for Spar International, laid out the strategy at yesterday’s Xcelerate Symphony Retail Forum in Paris, noting that last year there were a total of 13,112 stores across 48 countries.

Last year, Spar signed up partners in Cyprus, Greece, Malta and Sri Lanka, with Kosovo and Australia among the new markets entered this year.

“We have now entered the age of the consumer – they are web natives, well connected, well informed, with expectations of personalisation and wanting to be in control of their shopping experience,” Rose commented. “Data has changed the game – our ability to analyse it and create predictions, through AI and machine learning, has given us more insight.”

In addition to its focus on in-store technology, Spar now has e-commerce in 12 countries, but will only roll it out to regions where there’s really a market for it, with Rose noting Sri Lanka will not currently be one of them due to lack of demand.

In India, Spar has introduced a mobile app, which allows customers to place orders for delivery, collection in-store, or to be navigated round the store to their specific items, plus online shopping via voice technology.

App users in store get personalised promotions and offers flagged to them in real-time, due to work with Philips’ light fidelity (LiFi) technology, which can identify where a customer is to within half a metre, directing them to items as they walk past. Spar is also using it to direct staff to help customers who dwell longer than usual in one place, as well as using the data to optimise store layout and promotions.

Also in India, Spar has partnered with Bosch to install Internet of Things sensors developed in its refrigerators to monitor temperature and energy consumption, triggering predictive maintenance.

In Austria, the retailer has developed an app enabling customers to design sandwiches, specify a pick-up time and pay beforehand, greatly reducing wait time and queues at the lunchtime peak.

Spar has also tested artificial intelligence-powered transport planning, which identifies events and trends, learns patterns and builds them into delivery vehicle route plans. Rose said this system increased efficiency by 10 per cent, with no additional vehicles.

He admitted that many of these initiatives experienced master data challenges, so Spar has partnership with Google to identify anomalies and highlight potential issues, suggesting solutions that are then audited by colleagues to make sure it’s doing the right thing.

In Belgium, Spar has joined the trend to experiment with self scanning tech via an app, with tests increasing profitability, without the need to invest in more staff and freeing the time of existing shop-floor workers.

When asked about the security risks inherent in such systems, Rose admitted that their effectiveness does “depend on the nature of the country”, but explained that customers are closely tracked around the store. “For instance, if someone dwells in alcohol aisle but doesn’t scan any alcohol on the way out, a red light will go on and colleagues will go and check.”

In Spain, Spar has used intelligent demand forecasting, using predictive analytics on store sales to work out what to order from suppliers. Rose said this has now almost autotomised the process and reduced inventory levels by 13 per cent, releasing cash from stock holding.

Irish Spar stores have piloted digital signage, which advertises different things at specific meal times, making messaging more relevant to customers, while in Norway, it partnered with Zoopit for customer deliveries, giving better customer tracking and freeing the company from having to own and maintain large vehicle fleets.

As for staff, Spar has rolled-out digital ‘games’ which learn which aspects of the job individuals are better or worse at, challenging them on the former and regularly testing improvement on the latter.

Spar operated 246 warehouses worldwide and Rose said that operational costs are increasing.

“We wanted to bring costs down with digital by connecting legacy systems, removing people, movement and activity,” he stated, noting that this doesn’t necessarily mean anyone has to lose their job, rather reducing non-essential activities.

In China, the company used a WeChat ‘mini programme’ to let suppliers interact directly with warehouse, taking times for reservation from over two minutes to under one minute.

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