How do you build a smart store that is open 24/7?

Okay Direct, our automated 24/7 store, opened its first location in Ghent in November 2021. Meanwhile, three Okay Direct stores are up and running, and we are continuously improving the technology.


At the end of November 2020, the project really took off. Project Manager Daan Germeau: "We had been working for a while on a study into the possibilities of stores being open 24/7. At the same time, OKay was looking for a smaller store concept for urban areas. One plus one equals two and so the first self-service of Colruyt Group became one of OKay."

"We immediately took action. Our expansion team went on the search for a suitable location while a compact team started elaborating a concept. After a one-week design sprint in early December, we ended up with two concepts. Once Okay had chosen the concept that seemed best to them, our realisation team could get down to business. Software engineers and innovation officers also started developing the various components of the store in sprints."

Smart choices

An important question was: what will we develop ourselves and what will we purchase? "We searched the market and made choices. That went very smoothly thanks to the good relations with our suppliers. For example, it turned out that we could use refrigerators that we also install in other branches. By developing many things in parallel, the project progressed smoothly. The first orders went out no later than March."

Not everything works perfectly from day one. "In a self-service store, it is extremely important that we know exactly which products customers are putting in their basket. We noticed that the partitions between the products in our design did not work entirely as expected. Thanks to a quick intervention, we had a new version designed and produced in just a few days."

In early April, the renovations in Ghent started. "Our construction team completely stripped the building and ran into a number of surprises during the works. Luckily, we have sufficient knowledge and skill within the group to deal with such challenges."

Intense first weeks

At some point, of course, you have to open. "Quite exciting, as it's the first in its kind. When we open a Colruyt store, for example, we know more or less in advance how the customers will behave, but that was not the case now." The first weeks after opening the team was on standby 24/7. "That was an intense period. The store is open around the clock, which means things can also go wrong at any moment of the day."

"In the first days, we noticed customers did not always know that they had to close their cabinet door before they could open the next one. Or they didn't notice that their door was still open. We quickly found a solution with voice feedback, tested it first with a simple Bluetooth speaker and were able to implement a permanent solution less than a week later."

Award-winning concept

Meanwhile, we are three years and three Okay Direct stores down the road and everything is running smoothly. “From a technical point of view, we have a strong concept that we have gradually improved and taken to the next level over in recent years. The new branch is for instance equipped with new-generation cabinets designed by Colruyt Group Smart Technics and our partner in the Netherlands, Innovend, which allow our customers to shop even faster and more easily. Also, the store layout has been optimised and the product range has been fine-tuned. To top things off, we won the Mercurius prize in 2022, the most prestigious retail award for more than 30 years. With this award, Comeos - the federation representing Belgian trade and services - awards courage and innovation in the sector. A nice recognition for the hard work and resources we put into this."

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