In terms of accessing the unattended stores, Douang says Aisle 24 is members-based so no one can just walk into the store. “They need to download our mobile app and create an account... and they use a mobile button to unlock the door.” Once they’re done shopping, members use a self-checkout to scan and pay for their times. An analytics and security system helps prevent theft.
Douang says the longer-term plan is to open more than 200 locations in Canada over the next few years, but feels the market can support thousands of Aisle 24 stores. He notes that Aisle 24 has financial backing to support its expansions plan: a major investor and advisor is Wes Hall, the newest “dragon” on CBC Dragons’ Den.
“The gap in the market is related to a lot of the independent convenience stores and small grocers throughout Canada,” says Douang, who worked in his parents’ convenience store in Toronto when he was young, and then went on to work in the technology sector before co-founding Aisle 24. “The product offering was inconsistent from store to store and pricing was all over the board.” In addition, smaller-format stores were focused on items such as tobacco, which Douang notes is a declining industry, and lottery, which is increasingly going online. (Aisle 24 sells neither.)
“Most of these stores have to be open 12 to 14 hours a day, and with labour costs, it’s a very long day [for independent retailers],” he says. “There is this opportunity now to enhance [the concept] and make the operations of the business more efficient by utilizing technology.”
On that note, people have criticized Aisle 24 for the “loss of jobs,” which Douang acknowledges is a touchy subject. However, he says, “while we are not employing cashiers at our stores, we have warehouse workers, delivery drivers, support staff, technology developers, and others who all work on the back end to make this happen.”