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SMU students look to redefine the modern retail shopping experience

SMU students showcase their autonomous retail inventory tracking robot.
SMU students showcase their autonomous retail inventory tracking robot. Jesse Thomas / Global News

A group of Saint Mary’s University students and alumni are trying to recreate the modern-day grocery and retail store experience.

Kevin Schwarzer and Tanaka Akiyama, second-year engineering students at SMU, have been working on an autonomous retail robot that could help alleviate a common retail headache.

“It’s an autonomous system that’s designed to navigate a retail store, identify barcodes on the shelves, identify where products are and where they aren’t,” said Schwarzer. “It’s to help store employees identify locations and which products need to be restocked from the backroom.”

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The autonomous technology or retail robot they say could help improve customer service by ensuring that the hot sauce or dijon mustard you like is well stocked and making for an overall better shopping experience.

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But students don’t the inventory-taking robot to replace human jobs.

“This would help employees focus on human-to-human interactions,” said Schwarzer. “Like helping someone find a product or answer any questions they would have, instead of taking care of just tracking inventory.”

Down the hall, a group of SMU alumni are displaying their virtual reality store that was created to help retailers better understand consumer behaviours.

Their virtual reality grocery store experience would allow retail stores to use the technology to simulate customers shopping in their stores while mimicking the retail environment to look at shoppers’ tendencies and what kind of products and price points they gravitate towards.

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“With this being virtual, it allows us to easily manipulate things such as shelving placement, product placement, signage,” said Austin Castellanos, co-ordinator at the David Sobeys Centre for Innovation and Retailing Services. “We can test other prices, as well as do another AV testing in order to maybe see the difference between two different brand designs, product designs or any other product comparisons.”

The virtual reality technology saves grocers and retailers doing these studies in-store and disrupting the day-to-day flow in the retail space. But the technology, they say, could also be used to allow users to shop from at home.

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“Websites are sort of flat pages with two-dimensional images but at some point, we can see a virtual reality experience where you put on the glasses and sitting in the comfort of your home you could be shopping in a very realistic shopping experience,” said Dr. Ramesh Venkat, director of the David Sobey Centre

The showcase was part of the third annual National Retail Innovation Awards handed out in Halifax on Friday.