The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives in so many ways, some very likely permanently. Nowhere do we see this more than in the way we consume and purchase goods. In the first of two articles on this topic, Katy Sayer takes us through the developing world of contactless and “checkout-free” shopping, to see what the future holds and the impact intellectual property is having in this space.
Public Health England’s report on the impact of the pandemic on grocery shopping found that the week before the first formal lockdown in March 2020, the highest ever volume of sales of food and drink was recorded in the UK: at 43.6% higher than the same week in 2019. But where are we now?
Lockdown and social distancing measures have now eased in the UK and many of us may be back to our pre-pandemic supermarket shopping routines; but some changes remain and hygiene is still inevitably of importance. As the way in which we buy our food and who we buy it from continues to evolve, intellectual property is of ever-increasing importance in the grocery industry – not least in terms of new technological innovations and new branding strategies, for eating and purchasing in a cashless, virtual world.
Contactless shopping for a cashless society
Social distancing and touchless technologies have understandably been a big focus since the pandemic hit, but some companies have been looking at this area already for quite some time.
No stranger to filing patents, Amazon’s contactless stores (“Amazon Go” in the US and “Amazon Fresh” in the UK) use cutting-edge technology for a cashless society. Providing a queue-less, socially distanced service with no need for card or cash, Amazon’s stores make for an alternative post-pandemic shopping experience.
The stores’ “Just Walk Out” technology uses a combination of weight sensors, QR codes, video camera and computer vision systems to keep track of what customers pick up and take out of the door. The systems also include spring-loaded plates and weight sensors on “smart shelves” which push rear items to the front once front items are removed. Amazon filed patent applications  relating to these technologies back in 2014 and 2015, years before the COVID-19 pandemic began. Their first London Amazon Fresh store opened in Ealing in March 2021: the first and only of its kind in the UK, their monopoly seemingly facilitated by their patent portfolio. Household names in the UK supermarket space are now following suit at their own pace, albeit in a less radical way.
Amazon has also developed technology using hand biometrics for payment. In June 2018, Amazon filed a US patent application relating to a non-contact biometric identification system including a hand scanner that generates an image of a user’s palm using characteristics such as wrinkles and veins. A user can then be identified based on a comparison of the image with previously stored images associated with that user. Unlike fingerprint scanners found on some smartphones, the system doesn’t require the user to physically touch their hand onto the scanning device. The application was published in December 2019, shortly before reports of a new virus started to sweep the world.
The system, named “Amazon One”, is already in use as an entry and payment option at several Amazon and Whole Foods (owned by Amazon) stores in the US. Not only is the scanner contactless, but the system can apparently also process a charge in less than 300 milliseconds, while a regular card transaction typically takes between three and four seconds. Supermarkets in the UK are now playing catch-up with Amazon’s innovative stores.
Data shows that one in ten adults in the UK have now gone “cashless” , inevitably accelerated by the pandemic. Sainsbury’s has trialled an app allowing shoppers to scan and pay for items with their smartphone then leave without going through a checkout. Waitrose’s “Quick Check” offers a similar service. Tesco’s High Holborn branch (a stone’s throw from Kilburn & Strode’s London HQ) went cashless in 2020, with payment options being limited to card or mobile. In 2021, it has taken it a step further by going contactless. “Contactless” in this sense means going one step further than offering payment by contactless cards, mobile phones, smart watches etc. It’s going completely touch-free so that all that customers will have to touch is the products they pick up to buy, with no need to touch even their own wallet or mobile phone to pay. The store will use “GetGo”, an alternative technology to Amazon’s “Just Walk Out” system, developed by Trigo, an Israeli start-up rivalling Amazon in the cashier-less shopping space. Trigo’s system uses ceiling cameras and AI to track customer movement and document items to charge the customer automatically for what they’ve taken.
As these kinds of contactless solutions are advanced, patents will inevitably have a significant role to play. Patents are of course monopoly rights giving the owner the right to prevent others from using their claimed invention without their permission. The filing of Amazon’s patent applications for the technologies core to its “Just Walk Out” stores therefore gave a monopoly for these technologies before interest in contactless shopping technologies was catalysed by the pandemic. Without these patent rights, supermarket competitors would have been free to copy and use the technologies used in Amazon’s stores. As it is, they will have to develop different technologies to accomplish the same end – or take a licence from Amazon.
Indeed, Amazon has since made its “Just Walk Out” technology available as a service to third-party retailers to use in their stores. However, in the wake of Tesco announcing its partnership with rival Trigo, supermarkets seem to be seeking solutions elsewhere, perhaps due to Amazon’s size and financial muscle. Reportedly, Amazon is offering licences for its technologies to rival retailers at the same time as collecting customer data to outmanoeuvre those same retailers.
Although Amazon’s supermarket patents might not be living up to their full licensing potential just yet, their purpose as a monopoly right still seems to have commercially assisted Amazon in being the first to market in this area and slowing down competitors, forcing them to seek alternative technologies.
What will the future look like?
The Food & Drink sector has quickly evolved, taking advantage of and fast-tracking developments which were, in some cases, already in the pipeline. There is a huge opportunity for the sector to tune in to and take advantage of changing consumer trends for purchasing in a cashless, virtual world. If you’re a F&D business, your intellectual property needs to work harder for you than ever before – but the potential rewards are greater than ever.
If you would like to know more and find out how we might be able to help your Food & Drink business, please get in touch. We would love to be part of your journey. But more than that, we understand your sector. Against the commercial backdrop which is already familiar to us, we work hard to get to know your business and its own individual needs, providing tailored, pragmatic advice and building a genuine partnership.
If you have any questions, please get in touch with Katy, or your usual Kilburn & Strode advisor.