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为零售商店提供免结账技术支持,Grabango获1200万美元融资

众所周知,亚马逊对旗下的Amazon Go连锁店进行了积极的扩张,一批新兴的初创企业也希望在这个新生行业分得一杯羹,无收银员(cashierless,或称无现金)商店正在迅速成为现实。对于零售商来说,这是一个双赢的局面:有了免结账协议(checkout-free arrangement),顾客就不必去排长队或使用自助结账机,商店也随之节省了大量的工资开支,至少理论上是这样的。

无收银员商店领域的最新参与者之一是硅谷初创公司Grabango,该公司由Pandora Radio的联合创始人兼首席技术官Will Glaser创立。自三年前成立以来,Grabango已经获得了17项与免结账协议技术相关的专利,并与四家美国客户签订了协议。该公司声称,这些大客户每年会为6亿多购物者提供服务。

Grabango早期蓬勃发展的势头给投资者们留下了深刻印象,就在今天,Grabango宣布已经获得了1200万美元A轮融资,由Propel Venture Partners领投,Ridge Ventures、Abstract Ventures、Commerce Ventures和Founders Fund参投。本轮融资过后,这家拥有37名员工的创业公司融资总额达到1800万美元,Propel的普通合伙人Ryan Gilbert也将加入董事会。

Grabango的首席执行官Glaser表示,本轮融资将用于推动产品研发和新客户商店的扩张。

“我们的目标是彻底地改变人们与事物互动的方式,”格拉泽说。“我们不想成为被关注的焦点,而是希望我们的系统能够在后台工作流畅地工作,以至于被完全忽视该系统的存在,一切都变得理所当然。”

Grabango并不是唯一一家致力于无摩擦(frictionless)购物体验的初创公司。今年6月,日本电信公司NTT East与初创公司Earth Eyes联手推出了一款名为“人工智能卫士(AI Guardsman)”的产品,该产品能通过扫描摄像头拍摄到的可疑活动来预防店内失窃。去年11月,英特尔和腾讯推出了两款用于零售的人工智能产品,这两款产品可以跟踪客户并执行复杂的目标检测。

但Glaser表示,Grabango的产品比许多竞争对手的产品更具可扩展性。他表示,这款软件的设计初衷是在面积超过10万平方英尺(约合10万平方米)的商店里使用,并能同时追踪数百名购物者,目前门店的面积大约在2000至50000平方英尺之间。此外,该系统可以对“数十万”SKU进行监控,免去了门店员工手工盘点库存的需要,并与现有的销售点系统和门店运营平台相集成。

格拉泽说,系统最终的目标是提高容错性。大部分的数据处理由专用PC在本地质性,完全不需要互联网连接。Grabango的项目跟踪摄像头是由内部自主研发设计的,重量轻、制造成本相对低廉,这一设计降低了安装成本。此外,商店也会受益于更大规模的视觉覆盖,这有助于Grabango生成的商店三维平面图,这种三维图减少了由于遮挡而无法识别购买的可能性。

Glaser说,该系统的机器学习算法使用了强化学习训练技术,使用奖励来驱动代理向目标前进,这一算法在识别物体上具有99.9%的准确率。也就是说,该系统在一千次的识别中只有一次失败了。

格拉泽在一次采访中表示:“商店里的一切都是至关重要的,系统永远都不应该宕机……当我们在系统上进行迭代时,我们会观察成功和失败,每次出现失败,我们就把它当作训练机器的机会。大规模、高可靠性、低部署成本,以及与现有商店的集成,所有的这些想法结合在一起就是我们认为自己是企业级技术标杆的主要原因。”

上述这些并不是Grabango在竞争中独树一帜的唯一方式。例如,Amazon Go要求顾客下载一个应用程序并登陆一个账户,然后才能从货架上取东西。与之不同的是,使用Grabango系统的商店保留了现有的收银系统。购物者有两种选择:一是使用常规的现金、信用卡或借记卡结账,或者享受“快速优惠(SNAP benefits)”,二是选择使用Grabango的免结账功能。在后一种情况下,结账是自动的,顾客无需扫描条形码或确认他们已经完成购物,就可以走出去。

格拉泽表示,目前Grabango的市场都集中在美国地区,在未来他们的重点仍将放在美国。Grabango希望能够在未来几年内,将美国前30大杂货商和10家便利店连锁店作为客户收入囊中。

当然要做到这一点,它必须同一大批初创企业展开正面交锋,其中多数企业都开设了概念体验店,或者已经与实体零售商展开了合作。继8月份Zippin之后,Standard Cognition成为第二家在旧金山开设无收银员(或称无现金)门店的公司。Trigo Vision最近与以色列连锁超市Shufersal签署了一项协议,拿下了272家无收银员(或称无现金)门店。当然,大型零售商亚马逊在西雅图、芝加哥和旧金山都设有Amazon Go商店。

但Gilbert确信Grabango有机会反击。

“Grabango实现了实体零售商的目标,即提供更流畅的购物体验和更好的利润,”他说。“我们查看了所有免结账技术的提供商,Grabango是目前市场上唯一一家真正匹配的上企业规模的提供商。”

Cashierless stores are fast becoming a reality, thanks to Amazon’s aggressive expansion of  its Amazon Go chain and an emergent class of startups looking to nab a slice of the nascent sector. It’s a win-win for retailers: With a checkout-free arrangement, customers don’t have to contend with lines or self-checkout machines, and stores save substantial overhead in payroll — theoretically, at least.

One of the space’s newest entrants is Grabango, a Silicon Valley startup founded by Pandora Radio cofounder and chief technology officer Will Glaser. Since its incorporation three years ago, Grabango has amassed 17 patents related to checkout-free technologies and signed on four U.S. clients that it claims serve over 600 million shoppers per year.

The early momentum has investors impressed. Grabango today announced that it has raised $12 million in a Series A funding round led by Propel Venture Partners, with participation from Ridge Ventures, Abstract Ventures, Commerce Ventures, and Founders Fund. This brings the 37-person company’s total raised to $18 million and will see Ryan Gilbert, general partner at Propel, join the board of directors.

Glaser, who serves as CEO, told VentureBeat that the cash infusion would fuel product development and Grabango’s expansion to new client stores.

“Our goal is to forever change the way people interact with things,” Glaser said. “We don’t want to be the center of attention, but rather for our systems to work so smoothly in the background they are completely taken for granted.”

Grabango isn’t the only company that’s working on frictionless shopping experiences. In June, Japanese telecom company NTT East teamed up with startup Earth Eyes to create AI Guardsman, which attempts to prevent shoplifting by scanning camera feeds for suspicious activity. In November, Intel and Tencent took the wraps off a pair of artificially intelligent (AI) products for retail that can track customers and perform complex object detection.

But, according to Glaser, Grabango’s product is much more scalable than many of its competitors’ offerings. It’s designed to work in stores with more than 100,000 square feet of floor space, he said, and to track hundreds of shoppers at once. (Current store deployments range from 2,000 to 50,000 square feet.) Moreover, the system can keep tabs on “hundreds of thousands” of SKUs, obviating the need for store employees to manually inventory store stock, and it integrates with existing point-of-sales systems and store operations platforms.

The ultimate goal is high fault tolerance, Glaser says. The bulk of processing is performed on-premises by a dedicated PC that doesn’t require an internet connection. Grabango’s item-tracking cameras — which were designed in-house — are lightweight and relatively inexpensive to manufacture, reducing the cost of install. Stores benefit from greater vision coverage, which helps Grabango generate better three-dimensional floor plans of stores and reduce the chance a purchase isn’t recognized as the result of occlusion.

The system’s machine learning algorithms — which were trained using reinforcement learning, an artificial intelligence (AI) training technique that uses rewards to drive agents toward goals — can recognize objects with 99.9 accuracy, Glaser said. That means they make a mistake one time out of 1,000.

“Everything is mission critical at a store — the system needs [to] never go down … [As] we iterate [on the system,] we look at successes and failures, and every time there’s a failure, we use that as an opportunity to train the machine,” Glaser said in an interview. “All [of these ideas] together — the large scale, the high-reliability focus, the low cost to deploy, and the integration with existing stores — is why we consider ourselves enterprise-class technology.”

These aren’t the only ways Grabango is setting itself apart from the competition. Unlike, say, Amazon Go, which requires customers to download an app and log into an account before they begin picking things off of shelves, Grabango-powered stores retain their existing cashier setups. Shoppers have two options: (1) checking out conventionally with cash, a credit or debit card, or SNAP benefits or (2) opting into a cashierless experience with Grabango’s app. In the latter case, checkout is automatic — customers can walk out without scanning a barcode or confirming that they’ve finished shopping.

Grabango’s market is currently in the U.S., where Glaser says its focus will remain for the foreseeable future. The optimistic plan is to capture the top 30 grocers and 10 convenience store chains in the U.S. as clients in the coming years.

To do so, it’ll have to go head to head with a bevy of new startups, most of which have opened proof-of-concept stores or partnered with brick-and-mortar retailers. Standard Cognition became the second company to open a cashierless store in San Francisco, following hot on the heels of Zippin in August. Trigo Vision recently inked a deal with Israel supermarket chain Shufersal for 272 cashierless stores. And, of course, mega retailer Amazon has Amazon Go locations in Seattle, Chicago, and San Francisco.

But Gilbert’s convinced that Grabango has a fighting chance.

“Grabango hits the target for brick-and-mortar retailers aiming to deliver a smoother shopper experience and a better bottom line,” he said. “We’ve looked at all the checkout-free technology providers, and Grabango is the only true enterprise scale provider in the market today.”

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