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Consumers like seeing a constant stream of tech in their grocers — and so do stores

People work in the Excelsior supermarket in Santa Monica, California, early on Nov. 23, 2017. Retailers are trying to get the best out of their supermarket floors. (Manny Crisostomo/New York Times) MORE HIDE

Synchronized grocery checkout lines are an old standard of a modern grocery store. But why stop at checkout lines if there are better ways to use software to connect people and machines?

Customers browsed groceries and stocked up on their staples before pulling up to their self-checkout machines. Employees like Woodburn, a supervisor at the Weddington Road grocery store in Madison, Ohio, looked for sale signs while shoppers paid their bills. Now the shopping experience has gone high-tech.

The Weddington store now works the way Amazon.com Inc. wants it to work: a single store hosts many connected products that work together. Woodburn, wearing headphones and a red vest with a computer screen on it, supervises oncoming shoppers. An employee drops off food, while another employee steers new shoppers to the right aisle. Two customers bought a Coke together.

Madison TIF Management Corp., a real estate company in the small Ohio town, built the store, and it operates for Publix Super Markets Inc., one of the nation’s largest food retailers. Publix invested $50 million in the center to outfit it with a showcase for the connected tech. A private equity firm that owns the real estate oversaw the renovations and joined the effort with Publix.

Grocery is a $1 trillion industry with a history of investment in the latest tools for the customer, from soda machines in store parking lots to digital displays next to individual items and so-called beauty counters, where customers don’t have to deal with the messy mess of squeezing themselves into size-12 shoes.

Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods Market Inc. in June 2017 heralded the arrival of the smart-grocer concept, which was expected to take over brick-and-mortar stores. Now that is starting to happen: Publix has been using a similar concept in a warehouse and testing online ordering in stores to access inventory when people can’t use self-checkout. The new technology at the store in Madison uses its so-called interconnected stores as a preview of how stores should be planned to take advantage of the automation that Amazon and others have been selling.

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