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At San Diego’s Valet Market technology becomes the cashier

There’s a small grocery store on the ground floor of the Vantage Point apartment building in downtown San Diego. And the store is missing something. Go inside and there is no cash register. No cashier. No bank of self-checkout machines. Just groceries sitting on shelves.

But the store, called Valet Market, has a system, according to co-founder and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Marius Buibas of Accel Robotics, which runs the place.

“We use technology to figure out who took what out of the store. So it’s an autonomous store in the sense that you walk in, you take what you want and you walk out,” Buibas said. “And we rely on a suite of sensors, some are in the ceilings and some are on the shelves, to figure out what you walked out with.”

Technology has dramatically changed retail shopping in the U.S. to where the shopping mall itself is looking archaic. It is possible the grocery store, with its perishable foods, will remain a shopping destination that never fully resorts to online sales and delivery.

But stores like Valet Market have changed the shopping experience. Before entering Valet Market, people need to get through a turnstile by flashing your store app over a sensor. Inside the store, there are cameras everywhere, watching what people pick up and what they put down.

A big computer screen in a backroom shows a moving diagram of who has what and how many items they’re carrying.

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Nicholas McVicker
Marius Buibas stands in Valet Market. He is co-founder and chief technology officer for Accel Robotics, which runs the store.

“So there are two things we’re tracking. The movement of people and the movement of product,” said Buibas.

The computer doesn’t know the customer’s name. Shoppers are identified by their app and given a generic identifier like “person139.” For the customer, Buibas says using the store is kind of like using a self service gas pump.

“Before we let you in the store we check your payment credentials,” Buibus said. "Then after you leave the store we charge you for what you took from the store.”

The store is also a delivery service for Vantage Point Apartments. On a recent day, just before dinner time, two young men were constantly walking in and out of the place with bags of food as they headed for the elevators on their way to one of 679 living units.

“Because we don’t have to have the labor sit behind a cashier’s desk the whole time, that same labor can be reused for the delivery service that we offer,” said Jeff Hermann, VP for product for Accel Robotics.

He calls their service the world’s fastest delivery system.

“So in four to five minutes they want a coffee, a banana and juice in the morning, we run that up to their room for free for them,” Hermann said.

The commercial strategy of Valet Market is to serve a dense population with a limited number of essential grocery products. People don’t drive to this market and there’s no parking lot. Company officials say their research shows close to 90% of households of Vantage Point Apartments use the market.

“The simplicity of having it right downstairs for us. Grocery stores are a little bit further away. So it’s pretty easy to come down and it’s comparable in price to other grocery stores in the area,” said resident Camron Thomas.

And all you need is a phone. It is OK if customers forgot their wallet.

Building resident Antoinette, who didn’t share her last name, said the inventory at Valet Market may be limited, but she thinks the company made a lot of good choices.

“Everything that we normally buy is here. Everything. Like Dave’s Bread, the type of cheese we like, spaghetti, it’s all here. It’s like they asked us, pre-hand, ‘What do you want in Valet?’” said Antoinette.

The technology used at Valet Market is patented. But the service is a trend in retail. Amazon runs a similar cashless operation with its Amazon Go stores.

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Nicholas McVicker
A large computer screen in a backroom of Valet Market tracks customers and their purchases. The numbered dots represent shoppers and the lines link them to products they've taken or replaced.

The trend has gotten the attention of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union local 135 in San Diego. Local union president Todd Walters said in union grocery stores like Vons or Albertsons this kind of technology is a subject of contract talks. He says computers do not run a grocery store, people do.

“Those folks know that product and they’re making sure that product is properly rotated. And you start getting into computers and technology. That’s fine. You might save a buck. But at the end of the day there’s so many things a computer is not going to do,” said Todd Walters, of UFCW 135.

Accel Robotics has plans for more stores in San Diego.

For now Vantage Point residents, and anyone else who downloads the app, will keep using Valet Market. Shopper Aleata Parry said the place has become a bit of a tourist attraction for some people.

“It’s the first thing I show my parents or any of my friends that come into town,” Parry said.