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Eartha Coleman stocks produce at Nelson Hall’s convenience store at the University of Denver on May 24, 2022. “We thought we’d see big labor savings by not having a cashier, but they're just busy restocking,” said Tad Robnett, general manager at Sodexo (not pictured). “It takes less employees, but almost the same number of hours.” (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Scan the QR code on the app, grab what you want and walk out. That’s how easy it is to pick up food at two new autonomous grocery stores at the University of Denver.

“You sort of feel like little guinea pigs in this little experiment of touchless stores,” student Jack Cansler said.

The Eat Now Corner Stores are the first checkoutless markets on college campuses in the state and some of the first in the country. The University of Houston implemented a similar camera-based system on its campus in 2020. 

Shoppers first scan the QR code that recognizes their account on the app, which connects to their University of Denver ID. Then, cameras on the ceiling register them as a 3-D box moving around the store. The cameras know the locations of items on the shelves and assign anything a student picks up to their account. The cameras track if an item is moved or set back down so no extra charges pop up.

“It was kind of jarring at first because all my friends had to figure out the app,” Cansler said. “Whenever we would walk in, there’d be like 80 cameras.”

When shoppers walk out, a charge will soon appear in their app with a detailed receipt. The app doesn’t remember what you look like or use facial recognition technology.

Amazon has also experimented with cashierless grocery stores. These locations use both cameras and sensors to track shoppers as they move throughout the store. The Denver stores don’t need sensors or scales on the shelf because cameras are pointed from multiple angles at the jars of pickles, fresh produce and Starbucks coffee machines.

“This technology actually supersedes some that’s been in the market for a while,” said Kevin Rettle, vice president at the university’s food services company, Sodexo. “It’s all by way of camera technology and AI that can calculate when something is removed.”

Jazzy Perez goes to the dining hall once a day to use up meal swipes, but prefers to use her prepaid dollars as cash at campus stores. “I really like the new system though — it’s fun to just grab stuff,” Perez said. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and whole pineapples are some of the biggest sellers. Grab-and-go meal kits with potatoes aren’t flying off the shelves, although Cansler said he made a sweet potato hash in his residence hall kitchen using ingredients only from the store.

Employees are still there to talk to students but they aren’t needed for checkout. Cansler said he prefers autonomous shopping, but thought it was fun to talk to the person at the register at the old convenience stores.

“It’s just strange to have a purchase without an interaction,” Cansler said.

Some students enjoy not having that interaction.

“I’m very introverted,” said student Bethany Lester. “I kind of like the fact that there’s no cashiers or anything, so I don’t have to talk to anybody.”

There’s one central dining hall on campus, but the grocery stores are open later and take less time than waiting in line or having a sit-down meal. Student Jazzy Perez goes to the dining hall once a day to burn through her meal swipes, but prefers to use her prepaid dollars in meal plan cash at the stores. She said she tries to avoid the dining halls because they’re overstimulating.

“I have really bad social anxiety when I’m in there,” Perez said. “There’s just way too many people.”

Other universities are catching on. Tracy Williams, who manages dining at the university, said he’s hosted visitors from schools across the country and even has an upcoming conference call with people in Australia.

Around 150 cameras were installed on the ceiling of a 200-square foot convenience store at the University of Denver’s Nelson Hall in March 2022. After visitors scan a QR code upon entering the store, cameras track keypoints on customers’ torso and joints, as well as on inventory, to detect items that are taken off shelves. DU’s two cashless stores are the first to be introduced to college campuses in Colorado. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The shops, which used to be regular convenience stores at different locations on campus, moved to spaces that previously served as small dining halls. They are about a 10 minute walk apart on the north and south end of High Street, in the Nelson and Centennial Halls dorms.

Plans to renovate the convenience stores were scrapped when Williams and his boss came across an article online about AiFi, an artificial intelligence company that specializes in retail applications. They reached out to the company and heard back immediately, so AiFi was involved in designing the new stores from the start.

Since the stores’ grand openings on April 6, Williams said the number of customers has been up 30% from the first three months of the year, when the stores were in different locations. The increase in volume has covered the cost of moving the stores and installing the technology, he said.

“Being the first the first type of store with this technology on a campus, we had to learn everything from scratch. There was no rulebook on how to do it,” said Tracy Williams, Sodexo’s district manager at the University of Denver (not pictured). “After the third day, we were hardly telling anybody how to work it because all the students were telling each other.” (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

No workers lost their jobs in the transition and Williams said the new model actually takes more labor than before. Staffers who used to work the register or stock the shelves now prepare meals in the kitchen that are shipped to each store.

“Being able to offer more food, I think that’s making more students go in there that normally wouldn’t,” Williams said.

Cansler said more food options is an upgrade from the previous store. Before he would just get snacks, but now he can make a whole meal. He said his sweet potato hash was fantastic.

“Just like something you’d find at a grocery store, it’s all fresh,” Cansler said. “It’s almost too good to be true at that point.”

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