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Wegmans becomes first supermarket in nation to offer app-based service for blind shoppers

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Ronald Peralta, WBFO
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An app service known as Aira offers blind or visually-impaired users the opportunity to use their smartphone as a second set of eyes, in order to perform tasks including shopping. Wegmans has become the first supermarket chain in the nation to offer the service.

Wegmans offers live staff on site to assist blind or visually-impaired shoppers with their shopping. That will not change, explained Wegmans consumer affairs manager Michele Mehaffy, but the introduction of Aira within their stores comes as part of the company's mission to maintain its strong reputation for customer service.

"Every customer wants independence when they're shopping," Mehaffy said. "To provide something like this to our customers who are blind, who have low vision, it's a great added feature for us."

Users download the app to their phone. When activated, it connects the user to a live operator who is able to use the smartphone camera to view the perspective of the client. 

"It turns the front of the camera on and then the person can see what you see," explained Kevin Phelan, vice president of sales and marketing for Aira. "They also have this really great dashboard that has all sorts of information like the Wegmans app, which is fully integrated into their view."

Users pay a fee to host a bank of minutes, similar to a cell phone plan, from which the customers get their usage. However, in the case of Wegmans the company purchases its own minutes plan. Aira users, by logging into the Wegmans account as a guest, instead are able to use the store's minutes, rather than their own.

Gary Wagner, a blind Buffalo resident and Aira subscriber, had already tried the once before he appeared at Wegmans' store on Alberta Drive in Amherst to give a demonstration.

"The steps are really easy," he said. "Once you download the app to your smartphone and register, once that has taken place it's just a matter of tapping a button and being connected to an agent who will guide you through your environment."

Wagner stood with his wife at the customer service section of the supermarket as he activated the app. He made contact with April, the Aira operator who would assist him in his search for hot sauce and granola bars.

As Wagner held up his phone, April led him from the customer service desk, where the transaction began. His first search was for the hot sauce. There was a moment of confusion, though, as he was led to an aisle which had several Mexican-styled hot sauces available. He wanted Frank's though, which after a brief moment of time and checking by April was found one aisle over in condiments. 

The other challenge, this time while searching for the granola bars, was a metal pole which partially obscured the view of the specific flavor he was looking for. But after a few moments of April instructing him to adjust the position of the phone, the right box was in his hands. She then continued to lead him to the checkout counter.

Despite the temporary delays, including the confusion over the hot sauce, Wagner was impressed. 

"I think as the agents become more experienced with assisting blind and visually-impaired people to shop at Wegmans, they'll develop techniques to make that process even easier," he said.

April's patience in the moments of confusion was most noticeable. The patience for such occasions, Phelan explained, is an important part of Aira operators' training.

"The agents are really the lifeline of our business," Phelan said. "They go through a 30-day 'boot camp' where they get background screens. They go through what's called orientation of mobility training. Really communicating with someone who's blind or visually impaired. We take great pride in that quality of service."

Wagner said he next plans to use Aira at the airport during an upcoming trip to Washington, DC. Phelan says in addition to airports, Aira is also available in many restaurants and college campuses.

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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