One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Leor Grebler
3 min readJan 21, 2023
Generated by author using Midjourney

I like visiting a particular chain of supermarkets because they’re willing to try new things. At one particular branch, they’re always testing new systems.

A large difference at this store was that instead of requiring a coin to unlock a cart, you could enter your membership number. Wow… I often avoided stores because I couldn’t find a coin in my car and now I could forget about that. In this store, your membership number is also your national ID number, so don’t get me started on privacy…

The first major innovation after I started visiting was that they had scanning guns for speeding up the checkout. You’d sign into your membership account on a console, select a gun, and then scan the barcode of every device you’d put it. It was clunky. The UX was reminiscent of very after market Android-based car infotainment systems from more than 5 years ago. It had high latency.

However, it did the trick. At checkout, instead of scanning every item, you’d just scan a QR code generated on the scanner’s screen and then finish the payment at a normal self-checkout. It saved about 10% of the time but also added a fun factor to the shopping experience. It also transformed the cart into a kind of diplomatic territory… this was the place where pre-scanned items waited — kind of like US customs pre-clearance overseas.

The next advancement was the use of vision-based selection systems for fruits at the self checkout. If you opted out of using the hand held scanners, you could still use the self-checkout. With this advancement, when you placed fruit in the weighing area and selected fruit on the touchscreen, it would re-order the selection based on what it thought it saw. This was very clever and helpful as the traditional way of navigating the menu was time consuming.

Several months ago, a new technology started to emerge. The carts started to change form and have a large mount on them. Then, to fit this new mount, the store had to remove the automated cart systems and revert to coin-released. Ugggh! No…

If you don’t have a coin, you need to leave ID in exchange for a coin at the service desk. After you’ve delivered your groceries to the car and then returned the cart, you must then return to the store and “buy back” your ID with the coin. If you’re with kids, it’s exponentially more difficult.

So what did this magical mount hold? A new in-cart system that used cameras to automatically scan what you placed inside. It also had a brighter, larger touchscreen. The checkout worked similar to the handheld scanners — once you finished shopping, you dismounted the 45 cm long device from the cart and paid for your items.

The first time using the system, it was a bit clunky. I attributed it to a learning curve. It would often think I removed items and could be confused if I scanned an item on its scanner and then placed it inside. Mounting and dismounting was also clunky and the device was heavier that it appeared.

The real kicker was that as I eagerly returned to the store to try it out again, well… the system was down. I didn’t have a coin, I couldn’t use the handheld scanners any longer, and there was a long queue at the self checkout. Two or more steps backward.

The lesson for implementing new technology is to assume that things will go wrong and plan for the worst case scenario still being better than the current status quo. It’s OK to showcase new technologies but if they’re associated with lower resiliency, they won’t be adopted and will created an attitude of pessimism.

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Leor Grebler

Independent daily thoughts on all things future, voice technologies and AI. More at http://linkedin.com/in/grebler