The future of smart stores 24/7

For two days, the DHBW (Baden-Württemberg Cooperative State University) Heilbronn was transformed into a meeting place for the German and European smart store industry. In 24 presentations, 30 speakers from 28 companies discussed and debated the future of autonomous shopping.

With increasing staff shortages, this niche – whether as a grab and go, automated box, walk-in or vending machine shop – has become an integral part of the retail landscape.

Prof. Dr. Stephan Rüschen and Julia Schumacher opened the RID with the wish that operators and technology providers would learn from each other, exchange ideas and network. "We wanted to make Heilbronn the Mecca of the smart store 24/7 community for two days. We succeeded," says Rüschen.

These are Smart Stores

Smart Stores are unmanned stores that are normally operated 24/7, have a small sales area and where cashless payments are made.

All smart store concepts, with their different manifestations, offer solutions to urgent problems in retail: staff shortages, undersupply of rural areas, changing consumer behavior and deserted city centres. Despite a restrained German market and skeptical German consumers, the niche has established itself: There are now over 80 different unmanned smart store concepts throughout Germany and a new one is added almost weekly.

Grab and go – the Mercedes among smart stores

Whether the grab-and-go concepts will prevail in Germany, no one knows. So far, these solutions are still in the experimental phase. In neighbouring Austria, too, the response to the market is rather weak: mainly small retailers have developed their own solutions and sell mainly regional products via vending machine shops or via self-check-out, as Marina Staab from Steyr University of Applied Sciences found in the current study together with DHBW Heilbronn.

Christoph von Lingner from the provider GK Software sees a great opportunity, especially in connection with loyalty programs: The installed AI can offer the customer the right products at exactly the right time.

With over 60 stores across Europe, Zabka Nano is the undisputed number one on the continent. With a constant adaptation of its assortments to customer profiles and locations (sports shop, fitness club, dormitories, subway), a consistent evaluation of AI feedback and a standardization of the store layout, Zabka has created low operating costs and high customer loyalty.

Rapid AI Development is Driving the Market

James Sutherland (CEO of Autonomo in Hamburg) is convinced that the technology-skeptical German is not only capable of learning, but must be – because new AI developments are now conquering the market every one to two months. Sutherland is certain that of all industries, this is a development that will affect retailers in particular. In the meantime, the AI in the unmanned stores can map processes that were previously unthinkable: By consistently assigning the product to a person, it is also possible to recognize when the product is passed on from one person to another.

When it comes to technical progress, PIxevia from Lithuania is at the forefront. For store operators, the company offers 3D mapping the ability to quickly and easily upgrade existing stores with AI, thus improving the customer's shopping experience.

Meticulous documentation

For more than two and a half years, DHBW Heilbronn has been supporting the topic of Smart Stores 24/7 with Prof. Dr. Stephan Rüschen and Julia Schumacher. In the meantime, 30 projects have been created with students of the Business Administration Retail program, social media presences on Instagram, LinkedIn, YouTube and Tiktok, its own website, 13 podcasts, four white papers and a list that is constantly updated and meticulously documents every development.

Rural areas are underserved

In Germany, more than 8,000 rural areas are now underserved. To fill the gap, Tante Frieda 24/7 is now replacing the corner shop. Jan Stroh from Fleischerei Stroh started the experiment in Saarland with two different smart store concepts. But the fully automated container in Theley does not yet reach the required frequency.

The 24/7 supermarket in Wahlen is quite different: it is well received – even by the elderly, for whom an emergency telephone has been set up. So that Grandma Frieda - the idea and namesake of the project - can also shop without technological barriers.

However, automated boxes can function not only as a local supplier in the countryside, but also as an attraction in the city center. In the center of Offenburg, Jonas Dübon from Edeka Südwest and Matthias Kurz from Knapp Smart Solutions launched a successful pilot: Whether for a Tinder date, a note purchase or a spontaneous barbecue party – the products from the box are mainly sold on Fridays and weekends. "The number one product is Paulaner Spezi," says Dübon.

Watching the robot work

While the customer waits for the purchases, he can watch the robot work through a pane of glass. Dübon is convinced: "Shopping feels faster for the customer."

Although the Automated Box appeals to a different target group than weekend shoppers with an average receipt of 200 euros, Dübon and Kurz see a growth market here: Especially in connection with the online store, the box can still be expanded. At the moment, however, customers use the online shop more as a shop window than for pre-reservation.

Late Bird Germany has been in development since 2018 and addresses many customer requests: The items are staggered and issued according to size and weight - so that the chips do not crumble under the weight of the champagne bottle. Equipped with a machine-readable zone, the Late Bird system can also detect fake ID cards and thus carry out valid age recognition, for example for alcoholic products.

MCS with its CEO Torsten Eichinger has also discovered the Offenburg market for itself. However, the box is located in the industrial park and that brought surprises in the target group: not the MCS company employees, but the truck drivers of the surrounding freight forwarders are now the main customers.

But also the partygoers of the club scene like to stock up on bifi at night when all other shops are closed. This opened up completely new possibilities for the operating team of MCS trainees and dual students: The box is now a test market for brand-new energy drinks, which are available there before they are launched on the market.

Eichinger is convinced that if you open up new markets, you have to adapt. But then there are no limits to the smart stores: Whether it's car washes, petrol stations, truck stops or the kiosk around the corner – the demand for autonomous solutions will grow.

"We need to learn more about the user without invading the user's privacy."

Claudia Armbruster, Vice President Innovation Wanzl

Does technology help profitability?

The speakers on the second day agreed: The shortage of personnel in the food retail industry is accelerating the digitization and automation of shops. Vending machines should become more intelligent and must no longer contradict the distribution of fresh products. In the future, new software and technologies will improve and simplify shopping in supermarkets or vending machines. But is it profitable in the end?

Claudia Armbruster, Vice President Innovation at shopping trolley manufacturer Wanzl, is certain that smart store concepts can only work if the focus is on the user and his or her individual needs right from the start. "We need to learn more about the user without invading the user's privacy," she says, describing the challenge.

If you think automation through to the end, you have to ask yourself whether we will go shopping at all in the future. "The end user wants a full range of products," which is why hybrid solutions must also be considered, such as fresh products on site, a pick-up option or the dispatch of the remaining goods.

Retail expert Rüschen, initiator and moderator of the Retail Innovation Days, points out: "The world is not always as disruptive as we suspect on stage." Customers are often very slow to change their habitual behaviour and get used to a new way of shopping.

"The world is not always as disruptive as we think it is on stage"

Prof. Dr. Stephan Rüschen, DHBW Heilbronn

Use existing payment systems

Alexander Palnik, CEO Syreta, also had to experience this with the 31 smart store projects that have currently been implemented. Today's technology makes many things possible, but the biggest hurdle is the customer's reservation.

The sales of the company's own smart stores only increased by 75 percent when users were able to shop in the store without first downloading the app. A credit and debit card is now sufficient for check-in and check-out.

In addition, depending on the location of the smart store, the product range must be precisely tailored to the needs of the customers: Ensuring the local supply of the rural population is a completely different challenge than offering convenience products to-go in a big city.

Christian Maresch, managing director and founder of Tante-M, also has his sights set on underserved rural areas with his stores. Local supply in rural areas is dying out because it is no longer economical. So the most important questions are: "What can we afford?", and "What does the customer really need?".

A smart store can never compete with a large supermarket, but it can serve an important niche: the constant availability of everyday necessities at supermarket prices and the offer of regional retailers without their own sales platform. He could also imagine integrating ATMs and a coffee bar in the future – according to the wishes of local customers. Maresch now operates 44 stores in Germany, making it the market leader.

Vending machines as a sure-fire success?

How vending machine shops, i.e. shops consisting of a large number of different vending machines, become a business model was presented by Thomas Nickel von Sielaff and René Schönberger using the example of Ape inn.

Ape Inn is an electronically controlled kiosk that is open 24 hours a day. Here you can find everything from beer to e-shisha that is otherwise difficult to get at night. Payment is made by smartphone, cash or card, without registration. In the not too distant future, it will also be possible to pay with digital currencies in the branches.

However, the system is not a complete self-runner, the vending machines need regular maintenance and the investment sum for a vending machine store also has a strong impact of around 200,000 euros at the beginning. But Schoenberger pointed out that Ape Inn was already profitable.

Vending machines should be able to do more than offer Coke and Redbull, Stefan Stüwer, Managing Director of Stüwer and inventor of the Regiomat, is convinced. Initially, no one believed that potatoes, grilled meat and eggs could be sold via vending machines, but the success proves him right: more than 5,800 Regiomats are now in use throughout Germany. The company is currently trying its hand at vending machines for bakeries, which can use them to sell leftovers after closing time.

Mehmet Tözge, Head of Smart Store Development at Lekkerland, and Ana Pinto, CEO of, do not believe in the one vending machine concept that will dominate the market in the future. Many different concepts would be needed to meet the respective customer needs. It makes sense to use and upgrade existing infrastructure.