January 19, 2017

Microsoft pitches inventory management tools for retail omnichannel

Software giant leverages cloud platforms and data analysis for intelligent store robots, vending machines, checkout apps, and smart shelves.

By DC Velocity Staff

Software colossus Microsoft Corp. is continuing to extend its computing expertise into the supply chain space by showing off a number of digital inventory management solutions it says could help retailers provide more efficient omnichannel shopping experiences.

Microsoft collaborated with several partner companies in a booth at this week's National Retail Federation (NRF) annual convention in New York City to display digital retail platforms such as a store scanning robot, an intelligent vending machine, an automatic cashless checkout, and a networked smart shelf.

Australian partner company Lakeba contributed an in-store robot called Shelfie that can help retailers avoid low stock levels and incorrect price tags. The rolling bot cruises store aisles scanning shelves, then leverages a data analytics solution running in the Microsoft Azure cloud computing platform. The results can enable real-time stock reporting, identify sales trends, and provide insights on optimizing merchandise displays. Shelfie will soon be piloted at the U.K.-based grocery chain Co-op Food. If that sounds ambitious, the technology was similar to another shelf-scanning robot strolling the NRF show floor called Tally, from San Francisco-based Simbe Robotics Inc.

A second project from Microsoft partners showed off a smart vending machine, created by West Chester, Penn.-based food vendor Mars Drinks and Seattle-based consultants Neal Analytics. The system links a basic vending machine to Microsoft's Azure IoT Suite, Cortana Intelligence Suite, and Power BI technology, creating a platform that uses remote sensors and predictive computing to better maintain stock levels; understand consumer behavior; and predict changes in demand related weather, holidays, or other factors.

A third innovation in digital inventory management was a mobile grocery checkout system that allows shoppers to skip cashier lines entirely by scanning each item as they place it in their carts, then checking out and paying on the app when finished. Similar in concept to Amazon.com Inc.'s recent launch of the cashless, checkout-free store called Amazon Go, this system uses an app called Skip from GoSkip Inc. that is built on Microsoft's Azure platform. The system is currently in pilot use at the Utah grocery chain Macey's.

Microsoft's fourth logistics platform at the NRF show was an intelligent shelf system called Powershelf from Annapolis, Md.-based IoT Smart Retail and Hitachi Consulting Corp. Running on Microsoft Azure, Powershelf uses sensors on shelves and Power BI dashboards to provide up-to-date insight on ordering levels; change pricing electronically; measure inventory life; and communicate with shoppers. The system is now in use by regional supermarket chain Giant Eagle Inc.

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