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Germany: Is this what the future of Aldi, Lidl and Co. looks like?

The Corona crisis has radically changed the shopping behavior of consumers, this could now have far-reaching consequences. Retailers are testing new store concepts around the world. Customers should be able to do their purchases faster, more hygienically and without the classic checkout process. What that means for shopping for groceries at discount retailers as Aldi, Lidl, Penny (part of Rewe) and Netto (part of EDEKA).

No one can really estimate how long the coronavirus will keep us busy. In addition to the many restrictions, the pandemic has also changed our shopping behavior. Customers go shopping at Aldi, Lidl, Rewe or Edeka less often, but when buying groceries there, they put significantly more goods on the checkout belt.

But that's not all: In order to measure the success of the stores of Lidl, Aldi and Co., the supermarkets and discounters analyse the shopping lists of the customers. The higher the average basket value per customer, the more successful the store is. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the per capita basket is said to have increased significantly, especially in the centrally located stores.

On the so-called green field, however, the supermarkets are struggling with falling sales. This is also due to the fact that the neighboring construction and furniture stores remained closed due to the two severe shutdowns. Supermarkets, discounters, drugstores and food retailers want to gradually break away from this dependency.

The aim is for customers to shop more often, for the shops to serve customers even at night and for the shops to be easily accessible by bus, train and bike.

Corona crisis brings Aldi, Lidl and Co. to city centers

For supermarkets, discounters and grocery stores, it has been the case all these years: customers drive to Aldi, Lidl, Rewe, Edeka, Kaufland or Real and shop there for the week. Commercial areas with large parking areas were therefore particularly lucrative. However, city stores are booming, as consumers can shop on the way home from work. The so-called green field has long since expanded. Shopping for groceries in the city center saves time and money.

It is no secret that the big supermarket chains increasingly want to go to the city centers and that local politicians are hoping that this will revive the city centers. However, the retailers will also demand consideration for the billions in investments. For example, the German retail industry insists on longer opening times in order to supply customers with food until late at night.

At the same time, discounters and supermarkets are using the central retail space to set up digital delivery hubs and to deliver groceries to surrounding neighborhoods by bike, scooter or public transport. Industry experts keep saying that smart city stores and digital urban stores are considered the future of shopping.

Little groceries, no shopping carts and hardly any gaps in the shelves

The urban stores of the future will be equipped with popular foods. With so-called fast movers, discounters, supermarkets and retailers focus exclusively on food that customers always buy.

These include milk, butter, yogurt, vegetables, meat, drinks and bread. You won't find non-food in these branches, just like unusual products. "The aim is for customers to be able to transport their daily purchases by bus, train or bicycle," say the developers. This is another reason why there are no shopping carts in the urban stores, only baskets.

The small range helps employees to quickly fill empty shelves with goods. "Empty sales areas cause a lot of damage because the gaps remain unused", reveal the experts from shopfitter Wanzl.

There are no empty shelves in the urban stores. Because the shelves use sensors to evaluate customer needs at any time, algorithms can make targeted suggestions to employees as to which products are selling well or badly.

Overall, sensors on ceilings, floors and shelves are the heart of the stores.

"Please wait": Admission restrictions are likely to prevail

In the middle of the Corona crisis, it is clear that higher sales do not mean happier customers. Long lines form in front of the stores, especially at peak times. Across the board, providers such as Aldi, Lidl, Edeka or Rewe have invested in traffic light systems, for example, in order to implement the applicable admission restrictions. But what is considered a special measure today indirectly introduces the future of shopping.

Such admission restrictions have long since arrived in self-service markets. Online giant Amazon, for example, uses customer counting mechanisms in its prestige cash register "Amazon Go" stores.

Sensors recognize where customers in the stores go first, which shelf they spend the longest on and how long the purchase takes in total. Amazon first introduced such stores in the USA. The focus is on hygiene, contactless payment, speed and a tight range.

Smartphone, sensors and cash registers without employees

While the sensors at the entrance, on the ceilings and on the floor accompany customers shopping, sensors on the shelf evaluate the weight of the individual products. For example, if a customer takes a pack of flour from the shelf, this product is assigned to the consumer. He then pays for the selected product at the checkout.

The sensors recognize the customer, the product and the quantity. The smart supermarket shelves even remember when a consumer changes his mind and puts a product back. At the checkout, retailers are currently testing three payment systems: self-service terminal, self-scan via smartphone with "just-walk-out" function and checkout tunnel.

The self-service terminal seems to be gaining ground in Germany. Customers have to scan the products themselves at a terminal equipped with a scanner and touch display. Up to six customers can be served at the same time on an area that takes up a classic treadmill checkout.

Such terminals are already in use at Kaufland, McDonald's, Ikea, Real, Globus, Rewe, Edeka and Netto Marken-Discount. Even the discounter giant Lidl is gaining its first experiences abroad.

Self-scan concepts go one step further. Customers scan the products with their own smartphone. Netto Marken-Discount, for example, is currently testing the concept in Munich. "We could roll out the self-scan process now and immediately across Germany", say the IT experts from Netto Marken-Discount proudly. "This is the future," it continues.

With this process, customers scan the price tags or QR codes on the products using the app. The system records the purchase and customers can leave the store after paying via the app, at the cash register or at the self-service terminal (just-walk-out).

Another concept consists of a treadmill and sensors. Customers have to place the goods on a treadmill as usual and let them drive through a kind of checkout tunnel. The products are scanned, recorded and the customer pays at the end using the terminal or the app.

Wanzl developed such a concept together with the screw giant Würth. The stores are even open to customers 24 hours a day.

Shopping for groceries at night: music against loneliness

Should smart city stores prevail, they will for the most part get by with few staff and have significantly longer opening times. At night, customers buy groceries via app, sensors and digital check-out. Only a security staff in front of the branch ensures that theft is prevented.

In the USA, initial tests on "Amazon Go" have already shown that shortly before midnight customers are sometimes completely alone in the stores. The studies showed that consumers felt more comfortable with music recordings and radio-like presentations.

"Imagine you are the only customer in a store. That can lead to stress and anxiety at night," explain the Wanzl developers. That is why music plays a crucial role in urban stores, especially at night. "If customers feel safe in a store, they find shopping much more pleasant and then they come back again," says Wanzl.

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