Innovation That Enables Immediate Consumption

Albert Heijn To GO’s smart shelf technology offers tap, grab and go purchasing.

June 13, 2018

ALEXANDRIA, Va. - At last week’s NACS Convenience Summit Europe, multiple leaders from retailers around the globe took the stage to share their insights and best practices—including Jan Willam Dockheer, general manager for Albert Heijn To GO, Ahold’s convenience store format in the Netherlands.

Dockheer shared that what he sees in the Dutch market is “very much related to what is seen around the world in convenience.” There’s a big focus on immediate consumption, as customers are buying items to eat and drink right at the moment of purchase.

By year’s end, the chain expects to have 90 locations open, all with a leading role in making healthy and delicious food options accessible for everyone on the go. Dockheer said the company is “passionate about fresh, but it’s hard to stay in that world unless we embrace technology as well.” Ahold looks at outside companies—including eatsa, ESSO, Total, Shell, LEON, Uber eats, Deliveroo, Starbucks and Pret a Manger—for inspiration and to drive his chain to greater heights.

Dockheer believes that you need to have “a very good concept for your franchisers to earn their money back. …The level of innovation needs to go up or you have no role to play anymore,” he said. “There’s no space for middle-of-the-road concepts.”

So, to enable immediate consumption and embrace innovation, Albert Heijn To Go is raising the bar with new technology that speeds up the whole shopping experience. The chain, which operates stores in high-traffic locations including airports, railway stations, hospitals, universities and busy streets, recently launched its new Tap to Go technology.

The technology combines digitized onboarding, active near-field communication, smart shelves and automated payments. That means there’s no check-in and no check-out for customers: They simply walk to their favorite products, pick them up, tap the shelf and go. (Sound familiar?) Payments automatically are deducted from customers’ bank accounts. If they choose to put an item back on the shelf, they just re-tap the shelf-edge label and the item is removed from the card.

For Dockheer, the technology is ideal for the convenience sector, where there is an increasing demand for food on the go. “The big opportunity for convenience is food and drink solutions on the go,” he said. “At all moments of the day, there is an increased need for food outside the home and the need increases for good food. That’s exactly where I want to step into with the To Go formula and drive sales and ultimately make people happy with healthy products on the go.”

Albert Heijn To Go, with its high-traffic locations, is perfectly poised to benefit. After several months of testing, Tap to Go is being rolled out to two to three more stores this year.

Not only does Tap to Go speed up the store visit—it can take just 10-20 seconds to walk into a store and ‘tap, grab and go’—it provides an opportunity to create hyperpersonalized offers, said Dockheer. “Tap instantly recognizes ‘you’ as ‘you’; it knows ‘you,’ and using smart algorithms can help ‘you’ with the tastes and passions in ‘your’ life.”

The technology for Tap to Go has been developed completely in-house at Ahold. Dockheer said that’s in line with the retailer’s leading position in self-scanning—it accounts for more than 60% of transactions and is heading toward 70%.

Perhaps unusually, the technology deploys a physical card versus a mobile app. However, Dockheer states that the card was not the objective for the launch. “The objective was speed and to develop in an agile way,” he says.

However, deploying a card-based mechanic meant Albert Heijn To Go was able to deliver the technology and test the concept far more quickly than might have been the case otherwise. The Apple iPhone, for example, does not enable “tap” technology, as Android phones do. As a result, Tap and Go enables LG or Samsung phone owners to tap via their phones or a physical card. iPhone users currently are restricted to the card, but a solution for the Apple platform is in the pipeline, Dockheer revealed. Either way, the fact that the program is card-based is not proving an obstacle in its acceptance. “The card is still very much appreciated by people because they feel they can leave their phone in their pocket and not worry about their phone batteries,” Dockheer explained.

In store, meanwhile, one of the greatest evolutions of Tap to Go technology is the move from passive, paper card, shelf-edge labels to electronic shelf labels (ESLs) that communicate with Albert Heijn To Go’s software system. In addition to assisting in the tap, grab and go purchasing, ESLs are future-proofing the store with the potential to introduce dynamic pricing.
Crucially, there’s been no reduction in staff numbers as a result of the new technology. Rather, employees are redeployed on the shop floor to engage with customers in a more service-oriented role.

Dockheer said that the uptake has been “fantastic” and that consumer engagement is good. “They like the fact that if they know where products are located, they can walk into the store, get those three items, have money deducted from their account and then walk out of the store in 10-20 seconds. That’s fast.”

Mark your calendars for June 2019 when Convenience Summit Europe visits London and Amsterdam.