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University of Houston targets students in a rush with new fully automated market

Photograph courtesy of Chartwells Higher Ed

The dining team at the University of Houston is expanding its tech amenities with a new automated market on campus.

Open 24 hours a day, Market Next offers a seamless shopping experience for students, who can walk in, grab a variety of snacks, beverages and other grab-and-go items, and leave without needing to physically check out. 

The university has already implemented several recent technologies, such as salad robots and autonomous delivery, so an automated market was just a logical next step, according to Chartwells Higher Education’s resident district manager at the University of Houston, David Riddle. And at a time when 42% of college students say they would like their school to offer more technology to enhance convenience, according to Technomic’s most recent College and University Consumer Trend Report, he believes that Market Next will be popular addition to campus. 

“Students’ tastes change constantly, and we’re well equipped to handle that,” he says. “But their shopping preferences evolve, too. And we want to continue providing new and unique shopping experiences that are unexpected on a college campus.” 

A quick conversion 

Market Next uses a camera-based system developed by artificial intelligence retail supplier Standard. The system only requires an app, NFC stickers (stickers embedded with a microchip that can be read by phones) and a handful of cameras to be installed in the store. This setup is appealing to retailers, says Standard co-founder and CEO Jordan Fisher, because it allows them to convert existing stores quickly. 

“It's got to be low friction for the shopper—that's the obvious piece of a checkout-free system like this—but it's really got to be low friction as well for the retailer,” he says. 

Not needing to change the store layout to go cashierless was what drew the Chartwells Higher Ed team to using Standard’s technology. 

“We didn't have to do a massive renovation; we didn't have to build something new in order to utilize this technology,” says Riddle. “It's just taking it and applying it to our current footprint, which is very beneficial and certainly speeds adoption of it, I think.”

Students use their Chartwells app to check in at any one of the NFC stickers located throughout the store and can do this at any point during their shopping experience. While shopping, they are monitored by the cameras, which track what they pick up and take out of the store. They are then charged for their items through the app. 

Built for speed 

While there will be no employees behind a cash register, staff will still be present to restock items, answer questions or help with any problems shoppers may have. 

Students have been using the Chartwells app to place orders at other retail spots on campus for the past three years, Riddle says, so he believes they will easily accept this new way of service, especially when rushing between classes. 

“Students like it because this really saves them time,” he says. “They recognize the safety side of it as well, but most important to them is speed.”

Fast service is highly valued by college students, with 37% of them listing speed as one of the most important attributes when making food and beverage purchasing decisions, according to Technomic’s report.

When Fisher and his team tested the technology before opening, the fastest shopping trip at Market Next took only 2.3 seconds.

University of Houston officials are already looking at converting other markets on campus into fully automated stores in the upcoming year. 

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