Circle K’s new self-checkouts are kicking barcode scanners to the curb

Source: Mashgin promotional video
Jun 03, 2022

Alimentation Couche-Tard yesterday said it will deploy more than 10,000 self-checkout machines in 7,000-plus Circle K and Couche-Tard convenience stores over the next three years. The artificial intelligence-powered machines use computer vision to recognize and ring up items without the use of barcodes.

The decision to scale the “Smart Checkout” technology was made after a successful pilot across nearly 500 Circle K locations in the U.S. and Sweden. The technology was also tested at Couche-Tard’s retail innovation lab location at McGill University in Montreal.

The self-checkouts are installed on existing countertop space in stores. Customers place the products they wish to purchase on the device and cameras recognize and tally the transaction in under a second, according to the convenience store giant and Mashgin, the tech provider.

“We’re committed to investing in and scaling technology that sets a new standard for convenience with our customers and advances our mission to make our customers’ lives a little easier every day,” Magnus Tägtström, vice president, global innovation at Couche-Tard, said in a statement.

The technology, which promises 99.9 percent accuracy, offers a number of benefits, including shortening lines, improving the customer experience and freeing up associates to help customers. The system is compatible with the retailer’s loyalty program, allows for fuel purchases and enables customers to pay with cash if they prefer.

The AI-powered devices are able to recognize foodservice items and have the ability to learn new objects in under a minute. information on new items is then synced across a retailer’s store network.

Eighty percent of Circle K customers surveyed after using the self-checkouts prefer it to being rung up by a person or using other types of technology to check themselves out of the store.

“We’ve been hearing great feedback from our customers in the stores where Smart Checkout has been introduced, and it’s easy to see why,” said Alex Miller, executive vice president operations, North America, and global commercial optimization for Couche-Tard. “Through this agreement, I am convinced that we will scale a great tool that makes it easy for our customers and team members, saving time and putting our customers and people first in our global operations.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What impact do you think the new self-checkout technology being scaled at Circle K and Couche-Tard will have on those chains’ customers, associates and operational performance? How do you expect c-store rivals of the two chains to react?

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20 Comments on "Circle K’s new self-checkouts are kicking barcode scanners to the curb"

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Mark Ryski

Rolling out a program this extensively would only be done if the benefits were clear. Self-checkout has been around for decades, but it is often hard to work with. It sounds like progress is being made. Really effective shelf-checkout could be very beneficial and it sounds like Circle K and Couche-Tard have found a solution. But while self-checkout can smooth the transaction process, and that’s helpful, ultimately it needs to deliver more revenue or expense savings. This technology has the potential to do both.

Kevin Graff

Couche-Tard has always been an innovator and this is absolutely on the right track. No one really wants to have to “scan” every item. And retailers don’t want to have to free up space for a self-checkout lane. Finally a solution that works for both the customer and retailer — and not just the IT department.

David Naumann

Self-checkout and autonomous checkout technology has made significant advancements in the last two years. With improved accuracy and lower costs for computer vision technology, it is likely to be the new standard for increasing the speed and convenience of self-checkout.

Richard Hernandez
Richard Hernandez
Merchant Director
11 months 27 days ago

I love it — I am curious to see what loss prevention enhancements are incorporated into the system. I don’t see this working in any outlets that take diesel — too many other factors and data needed that would hold up the line.

Peter Charness

In an era when store staff is elusive to find and expensive to hire, vision intelligence has great possibilities and not just in checkout. Many other store functions can be monitored and automated to insure first rate customer service, ranging from keeping shelves full, products in their designated places, and overall store hygiene to name a few. Technology that largely came from research into self driving cars is ready to park inside the store.

Dave Bruno

The results from the 5,000-store “pilot” (how often do you hear about a pilot of 5,000 locations – amazing!) seem to speak for themselves. Customers love it, and the specs that George reported about recognizing new items and sharing the learning across the network make this feel like a game-changing innovation. I usually hesitate to use that term because it is so over-used and typically the outcomes are underwhelming, but this innovation feels legit. I am in the POS business and I hate using self-checkout at grocery stores because of the time it takes to identify produce items that don’t have barcodes. I’d rather wait in line than fumble with the stupid image search features most systems offer. This would change that experience dramatically. Color me very optimistic.

Raj B. Shroff

When SCO works well it makes much more sense than having an associate, especially in a c-store chain where the basket size is small. As for impact, a positive one for shoppers for sure, likely for associates too. They will still need someone to assist with lottery, fuel, and tobacco so that support will help with any shopper hangups. I would think this would also help operational performance, enabling more transactions, faster with fewer people.

I think SCO is table stakes so rivals without it need to figure out how to get it done. Others might be working on their Just Walk Out technology to leapfrog this, although that hasn’t gained the traction I would have expected by now.

Jenn McMillen

Not surprising that we’re seeing yet another innovation to address the labor shortage.

Dr. Stephen Needel

OK – the solution is technologically cool. The real question is, how much money does it save? I’m not going to a Circle K instead of a 7-Eleven because it is high tech. And in my smoking days, when I needed to go to a convenience store regularly, if I wasn’t the first in line I was the second – they just aren’t that busy, I think, to justify this technology. Hopefully they’ve thought of this and are not being overly optimistic about driving new business.

Steve Montgomery

I have seen Mashgin’s technology in person and was surprised at its ability to recognize items, especially in foodservice. Self-checkout has moved from the “needed to win” category to the “needed to play” category. Consumers now expect to have the choice to quickly check themselves out of all types of retail.

For Circle K it allows them to adjust schedules so store staff can perform other functions or to potentially reduce store staff. The issue they and all c-store retailers face is with the sale of age restricted items. Market baskets with those items will still require a trained staff member.

Neil Saunders

It seems smart for Circle K where people only buy a handful of items. However it would be far less effective at a traditional grocer where people buy basket- or cart-loads of products – you couldn’t even fit all the products under the scanner at once! Those players need to look at other solutions, preferably those which involve ditching the checkout process entirely.

Lisa Goller

A seamless checkout experience with AI and camera vision will endear customers with ease and time savings. Associates could feel relieved to skip repetitive scanning motions and threatened with obsolescence. Despite up-front investments, operational performance will improve as efficiency drives productivity and store traffic.

C-stores rivals will examine whether and how to update their legacy systems for modern product identification. As Circle K and Couche-Tard evolve beyond barcodes, rivals will see if the results warrant imitation.

Melissa Minkow

If this really does speed up the checkout process significantly and is easy for shoppers to adopt, this technology would be extremely beneficial in the apparel space where lines get wildly long to check out and consumers often end up giving up.

Bob Amster

Let’s answer the second question first. Circle K’s competitors will, at minimum, test and experiment with formats and hardware. They will all do something in the next three years. If consumers find (or even notice) that it takes longer for self-checkout than by cashier, they will return to the cashier as long as lines are not very long which, in a convenience store, they should not be. For self-checkout to be as fast or faster than checkout by cashier, everything has to work: product recognition, tendering, product flow, and ease of use. In addition, one has to factor in the amount of experience of a cashier versus both the occasional and the “regular” customer.

David Spear
David Spear
Industry Consulting, Retail, CPG and Hospitality
11 months 27 days ago

I love the innovation here. There are so many possibilities with retail vision at the shelf, promo displays, and at checkout. If this proves to be highly successful with low risk for loss prevention, then other competitors will adopt quickly. When can I get this at my local grocery store? I’d much rather place items under the camera than scan every SKU!

Ryan Mathews

Assuming it works as advertised it should be a win all around. And, again if it works at full scale, I assume Circle K’s competition will follow, retailing being a largely imitative art. But, the real question has very little to do with c-stores. Could the technology perform as well with larger orders, say in a supermarket? And, if so, how long will it take grocery retailers to install it? Beyond that, does this mean the barcode – as we all have come to know and love it – is dead? Stay tuned.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.

This technology should be a breakthrough for convenience stores. Given the limited number of product purchases and the customer’s demand for a speedy checkout, this is the natural next step after scanners and associate assistance. The next generation for c-stores is no checkout. In the meantime other major players will be installing this technology.

Harley Feldman

The self checkout technology is a winner. It allows the customer to checkout more quickly without standing in line. The trick will be to ensure that the system can recognize 100% of the items the customer can purchase which it sounds like Couche-Tard has figured out. Not using bar codes means the customer does not have to figure out product orientation which can be the slowest part of the bar code process.

Brad Halverson

What works well for this new self-checkout tech is for items where a barcode wasn’t applied, can’t be applied (too small) or it’s been missed.

The upside can be quantified via the number of invalid items, mistakes, interruptions by customers asking other cashiers and customer service managers for help can be quantified in terms of labor savings. On the qualitative side of things, customers will be happier and can get on their way.

James Tenser

Cool tech, but the picture tells the story. For transactions involving fewer than six items (or so) that fit on the scanning platform, the machine-vision functionality may well be ready for prime time. AC-T has evidently done the math or they would not be stepping up to a chain-wide rollout.

Unless I am missing something, I do not see this as a solution for alcohol or tobacco sales in C-stores. It doesn’t look to me like a better option for supermarkets than today’s barcode scanning self checkout stations.

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