Albert Heijn To Go, Ahold’s convenience store format in the Netherlands, is raising the bar with new technology that speeds the whole shopping experience.
The chain, which operates stores in high traffic locations including airports, railway stations, hospitals, universities and on busy high streets, has recently launched its new Tap to Go technology following a one-store trial.
The technology combines digitized on-boarding, active NFC, smart shelves and automated payments. That means there’s no check in and no check out for customers - they simply walk to their favourite products, pick them up, tap the shelf and go. The payment is automatically deducted from the customer’s bank account and, if they choose to put an item back on the shelf, they just re-tap the shelf edge label and the item is removed from the card.
For Jan-Willem Dockheer, general manager of Albert Heijn To Go, the technology is ideal for the convenience sector, where there is an increasing demand for food on the go.
“The big opportunity for convenience is food and drink solutions on the go,” he says. “More and more people want to dine outside, whether they have their dinner before they go and play some sports or have a good breakfast outside but not at home. At all moments of the day, there is an increased need for food outside the home and the need increases for good food. That’s exactly where I want to step into with the To Go formula and drive sales and ultimately make people happy with healthy products on the go.”
The trend is set to accelerate Dockheer maintains and Albert Heijn To Go, with its high footfall locations, is perfectly poised to benefit.
“That’s why our formula is so powerful - we offer healthy products and high speed from a journey point of view. We initiated Tap to Go because we thought that even though we are known as having the fastest formula in the market, it needs to go even faster and lets us set a whole new standard in this market.”
After several months of testing, Tap to Go is being rolled out to two to three more stores this year.
Not only does Tap to Go speed the store visit - it can take just 10-20 seconds to walk into a store and ‘tap, grab and go’ - it provides an opportunity to create hyper-personalised offers, says Dockheer. “Tap instantly recognises ‘you’ as ‘you’, it knows ‘you’ and using smart algorithms can help ‘you’ with the tastes and passions in ‘your’ life.”
According to Dockheer, that capability brings a whole new level to retail. Not only does the technology remove the need for payment in-store, it understands each individual customer’s needs. If a customer is keen on sport, for instance, the technology can match and inspire the shopper to buy the best products for sports.
The technology for Tap to Go has been developed completely in-house at Ahold. Dockheer reports that’s in line with the retailer’s leading position in self scanning - it accounts for 60%+ of transactions and is heading towards 70%, he reveals.
“In line with that relatively high percentage we brainstormed and developed further and further and decided that we could leave the cash system out of the transaction process completely. A large part of our tech team were dealing with that and it was a logical step to design Tap to Go - a big step in the world of convenience retail.”
Perhaps unusually, the technology deploys a physical card versus a mobile app. However, Dockheer states that the mechanic - a card - was not the objective for the launch. “The objective was speed and to develop in an agile way,” he says.
However, deploying a card-based mechanic meant Albert Heijn To Go was able to deliver the technology and test the concept far more quickly than might have otherwise been the case. The Apple iPhone, for example, does not enable ‘tap’ technology, unlike Android. As a result, Tap and Go enables LG or Samsung phone owners to tap via their phones or a physical card. iPhone users are currently restricted to the card but a solution for the Apple platform is in the pipeline, Dockheer reveals. Either way, the fact the programme is card-based is not proving an obstacle in its acceptance. “The card is still very much appreciated by people because they feel they can leave their phone in their pockets and not worry about their phone batteries,” Dockheer explains.
In store, meanwhile, one of the greatest evolutions of Tap to Go technology is the move from passive paper card shelf edge labels to electronic shelf labels. These are electronically connected to Albert Heijn To Go’s software system. So, as well as assisting in the tap, grab and go purchasing, ESLs are future proofing the store with the potential to introduce dynamic pricing. According to Dockheer, that creates some great consumer benefits. Customers could be rewarded for shopping with a store a number of times during the day, for instance. It could also prompt purchasing of products a customer has never previously bought.
From the retailer’s perspective, meanwhile, ESLs have a valid business case. “We’ve seen that people love it - they visit more often and spend more. We are investing a lot per store but we are also getting a lot back,” Dockheer reports.
Crucially, there’s been no reduction in staff numbers as a result of the new technology. Rather, employees are redeployed on the shop floor to engage with customers and provide a more service oriented role. The self checkout tills are available still but the proportion of shoppers using new tech is a closely guarded secret for now.
Dockheer states that the uptake has been “fantastic” and that the consumer engagement is “really amazing”. “They like the experience more than I expected,” he says. “They like the fact that if they know where products are located, they can walk into the store, get those three items, have €6-7 deducted from their account and then walk out of the store in 10-20 seconds. That’s rather fast.”
Then, just imagine the unlocked potential at the Albert Heijn store at Central Station, where there are masses of people walking by who perceive they cannot make a purchase due to lack of time. “We’ve researched the technology in stores like those, but that’s for the future,” Dockheer says.
Further development of the technology is in the offing too, especially in the realms of personalisation. Location-based store navigation is also on the cards - it’s already available via Albert Heijn’s supermarket app and is one of many new ideas under the microscope. “There are literally eight new ideas or stages, which could become huge,” Dockheer teases.
Dockheer will be presenting on the AH to Go format, the opportunities for convenience retail, loyalty and high speed tech at CSE - Europe this month (June). Keep tuned to find out more.
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