Re-imagining the way Australians shop: How Coles Is Leading Retail Into The Future

Coles is a customer-focused business. Yes, the nature of all business is (presumably!) to aim for satisfied customers, but for us, there’s a lot more to our efforts than just improving customer experience at the checkout. We want to inspire our customers too and help them to live happier and healthier lives.

As you might expect, technology plays a starring role. I’m lucky enough to work in LAB288 – Coles’ virtual disruptive technology lab – and the tech we’ve got on our hands is truly game-changing. We’re leveraging an array of AI, automation and machine-learning to reimagine how customers shop to get the most out of their interaction with us, enhance our organisational efficiency and empower our teams to provide even better customer service.

With our own purpose-built space for experimentation, robotics and emerging technologies, LAB288 is a force of innovation. Culturally we feel like a startup, but we have the backing of a large corporation. It’s the best of both worlds, and it’s incredibly exciting to be digging into these new and emerging technologies whose potential when deployed at scale is enormous. We serve 21 million customers a week, so to know our work is in the spotlight and seen by so many people is so exciting.

Here’s a closer look at how we’re leveraging technology to drive the retail industry forward.

Harnessing technology to overcome customer frustrations and business challenges

At Coles, our purpose is to sustainably feed all Australians and help them lead happier, healthier lives. With this in mind, we’ve spent a lot of time at LAB288 working on team efficiency. We recently announced our ‘Together to Zero’ strategy which sets new targets to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions, commit to 100% renewable electricity and set a course to net zero greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition to our investments into large scale wind and solar generations, our team is working to improve the energy efficiency of our stores. To help us optimise the use of energy intensive equipment, such as fridges and freezers, we’re deploying Internet of Things sensors backed by machine learning models to automatically control their operation and alert team members when there are issues.

One of our strategic pillars is ‘Smarter Selling’, which is about improving the customer experience in-store. Our teams have been working on this with a number of different technologies that will improve the team members’ experiences and allow them to assist customers even more effectively.

When we deploy technology into our stores, we need to understand our target audience and be aware of their specific needs. In stores, the target audiences are generally customers and team members.

Looking out for our teams in store means they can do a better job looking after the customer. We think about AI and automation as a way of empowering them to do just that. One of the ways we achieve this is by using AI systems to deliver team members timely, context aware information to help them with the decision-making process.

Making sure our AI systems are context aware is key to the success of these solutions, though it’s often really challenging to achieve, which is what makes our work so meaningful.

One of my favourite recent customer innovations is our new fresh produce recognition system. We’ve all been there: rushing through the checkout and searching through the touch screens for the banana icon. It’s frustrating and it slows you down. So we’ve streamlined the checkout experience with computer vision technology that automatically recognises produce once it’s placed on the scales at the checkout and adds it to your transaction. I’m really excited to deploy this one – it’s helping customers get out of the store faster and I think it’s safe to say everyone wants that!

One of the things I love about my work – and I see it as a key differentiator for Coles – is that I can see the difference my work makes to people in my community.

Streamlining our in-store solutions with AI

When we started LAB288, we identified so many AI and computer vision opportunities in our stores. Some of these opportunities had already been addressed by third-party vendor solutions and others required custom engineering to solve.

During our research, we quickly realised that we were going to run into significant issues in the future if we deployed multiple complex independent solutions into our stores. All of the typical challenges around security, privacy, maintenance, deployments and logging would need to be solved for each solution. It just wasn’t going to be a viable option at scale.

This led to us developing our own AI edge computer system called the ‘Intelligent Edge Backbone’, a common foundation for deploying AI and computer vision workloads within our stores. Whether for a home-built piece of technology or a third-party application, we can deploy and operate them all on the Intelligent Edge Backbone seamlessly. It’s an enormous achievement from our team and I’m proud to say a first on the Australian market.

And of course, as we journey towards our vision of becoming Australia’s most trusted retailer, privacy and ethics are critical considerations for us as well. We ensure we are applying correct privacy and security controls around data and we only use the information we have for its intended purpose.

Our edge computer system, along with everything we do, incorporates all the appropriate privacy, ethics and security measures to ensure solutions operate responsibly with the customer’s best interests at hearts.

What’s next for us?

Much of the work we do at LAB288 is tailored towards Coles, but our hope is that the technologies we’re working on could eventually be deployed into other retailers outside Australia. We have great connections with US and European retail chains, and as a team we’re excited to see how the advances we develop in-house are adopted around the world.

Keen to join us on an exciting digital transformation roadmap at Coles? Head to our careers page to check out our latest opportunities.

SOCIAL

As Australia’s most trusted retailer, Coles is always at the cutting-edge of customer experience.

When it comes to our customer journeys, we’re constantly innovating, optimising and inspiring. We use the latest tech and the latest data to reimagine the way our customers shop with us and provide the most streamlined and enjoyable experience possible.

As part of LAB288 – Coles’ disruptive technology lab – I’m lucky enough to have a front-seat as we make exciting developments using AI, automation and machine-learning technologies. Our work here is propelling not only Coles, but also the global retail experience forward, so it’s a very exciting space to be in right now.

I’m sharing a bit more about it today if you’re interested in hearing more about the tech, projects and concepts we’re working on at the moment.

Andrew Nolan

Principal Engineer Disruptive Technology

Coles

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