Amazon Go faces unlikely challenge from Portuguese checkout-free start-up

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GROCERS, alarmed at Inc.’s rapid growth in Europe, are considering fighting back with the help of a tiny Portuguese start-up.

Sensei, a 16-month-old technology company based in Lisbon that’s backed by Germany’s Metro AG and Portugal’s Sonae SGPS SA, is pitching its technology to European supermarkets as they race the e-commerce giant to open the region’s first checkout-less stores.

Sensei says three major European grocers, including a UK supermarket operator, have tapped its technology for stores they plan to open this year — potentially getting in ahead of Amazon. The US behemoth has reportedly scouted space for its Amazon Go stores in London, but has not announced any openings.

Amazon operates 10 Go stores in Seattle, Chicago and San Francisco and plans to open as many as 3,000 more by 2021, people familiar with the situation have said. It also owns Whole Foods Market, which has seven stores in London. As consumers shop more online and Amazon pushes into food, Sensei sees an opening.

“Amazon Go is the best thing that happened to us,” Vasco Portugal, Sensei’s co-founder and chief executive officer, said in an interview. “It would have been much more difficult for us if they didn’t exist, because this is an emerging technology and they are putting pressure on the market to move in this way.”

The start-up uses overhead cameras and artificial intelligence (AI) software to detect what’s picked off shelves and calculate the bill. It can also determine whether products are put down again anywhere in the store, so that shoppers aren’t charged. Customers check in with a payment card or mobile-phone code when they arrive, and the store automatically takes payment when they leave.

Sensei’s technology may be cheaper to deploy. It’s easier to retrofit existing stores with AI driven, camera-only approaches than with multi sensor systems, said George Lawrie, a principal analyst with research firm Forrester.

Checkout-less systems still face hurdles. Both Amazon and Sensei’s systems work only with packaged items, yet grocers are coming under growing pressure from environmental groups and politicians to cut back on plastics. Sensei says grocers could solve the problem with a small number of employees in the fresh-food aisles, scanning loose produce.

Sensei’s technology also requires retailers to provide examples of every item they sell, which they then photograph from multiple angles to train the computer-vision algorithms that underpin its software.

Sensei declined to identify the grocers it’s working with, but said they’re planning to open one store each to start, ranging up to more than 5,000 square feet. Portugal said the company is talking to about a dozen retailers in Europe. — Bloomberg