Apple’s grip on retail tech is strengthening

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Never underestimate the extent to which Apple technology is gaining ground across industries once seen as closed to it. Things have changed — even grocery stores use Apple products today (and not just to take your money). 

If you shop at big US food retailers such as Albertsons, Safeway, or Shaw’s, you may already have been close to an Apple product. That’s because these chains rely on an AI-augmented store-ordering solution from a company called Afresh to minimize food waste across meat and seafood departments. Grocery Dive informs us that the tech is being deployed at more than 2,200 stores.

Apple at a grocery store near you

What Afresh does is provide an ordering interface supplemented by AI-powered recommendations and guidance to manage specific food products. The idea is that by combining better product care with AI-supported ordering systems, food is kept fresher, less is unprofitably wasted, and ordering systems become streamlined. The system runs, of course, on iPads, and while it doesn’t replace high standards of food storage and hygiene, if those two things are in place, it can help optimize results.

Thousands of iPads and iPhones are also used at more than 400 supermarkets from top US grocery retailer H-E-B, (hat tip to Brian Wayman for noting this). Equipped with custom apps, these are used to improve how food is sold and stored and to help reduce waste.  

The implementation is interesting

When orders are put in, store employees gather the items, scanning them with the iPhone camera as they go; drivers are provided with optimized delivery routes, while iPads are linked to essential sensors, such as temperature sensors, using Bluetooth.

This lets one iPad be used as a mobile control monitoring system to track product storage temperatures across a store, including on shelves or rotisserie; the system also alerts staff when something needs to be put in the fridge to extend its storage. Finally, the Apple system is used with software from Salesforce to help optimize management functions, such as shift schedules, and for maintenance requests, product feedback and more.

Cupertino’s retail wave

UK retailer John Lewis and Partners is another recognized store brand that uses Apple products within its operations. All its staffers have iPhones equipped with the John Lewis app, which helps in terms of inventory management, customer guidance, and customer communication. Back in the US,  independent grocers DeCicco & Sons, Cardiff Seaside Market, Village Market, Fruit Center Marketplace and Caraluzzi’s Markets use FoodStorm’s iOS compatible system to manage their own produce.

Elsewhere in the retail sector, Rituals, Hästens, Laura, and many other stores now use Apple devices at point of sale, as inventory management tools, for pick and collect services, deliveries, warehousing, and more.

Apple, the mobile company

There’s a simple reason Apple’s hardware has picked up more presence in retail; it’s the combination of a powerful and highly secure development ecosystem along with mobile devices available in a myriad of formats. The Mac, iPad, iPhone, Apple Watch — even visionOS systems — might be suitable to handle some back-end functions across multiple enterprises. 

Speaking during Apple’s Q1 FY24 financial call, Apple CFO Luca Maestri confirmed that the company’s reach into industries it might never have made a dent in before has become an opportunity for the Vision Pro.  “We are seeing strong excitement in enterprise. Leading organizations across many industries, such as Walmart, Nike, Vanguard, Striker, Bloomberg and SAP, have started leveraging and investing in Apple Vision Pro as the new platform to bring innovative spatial computing experiences to their customers and employees.”

Now I don’t anticipate we’ll be meeting customer service representatives wearing Vision Pro headsets anytime soon. But as the cost of visionOS devices falls over time and more discreet headsets appear, it’s entirely possible that experiences of that kind will become normalized. And at the current pace of change, this aspect of the digital transformation might not be terribly far away.

The transformations will continue until morale improves

Apple Intelligence could form another string to the company’s bow, as developers of narrow domain-focused AI systems will want to ensure they build in support as seamlessly as possible for enterprise-focused apps on Apple devices. That means thinking about App Intents on the shop floor, or AI as a service in the same way as OpenAI is to be supported on iOS 18.

Such systems could provide contextually relevant information in the moment to optimize store management functions. And, at the current trajectory, they might well carry an Apple logo as they do.

This simply would not have been thought even plausibly possible just a decade ago.

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