Technologies such as Amazon’s Just Walk Out promise supreme convenience. But do consumers have a strong enough appetite for checkout-less retail to justify its high implementation costs?
Back in 2019, Sainsbury’s became the first UK retailer to trial checkout-free grocery shopping. Customers used a proprietary app to scan and purchase items at its Holborn Circus convenience store in London.
The pilot wasn’t a great success. Shoppers found the QR codes hard to use, resulting in long queues at the customer service desk. Although the scan-and-go facility remained in place, checkouts were soon reinstalled.
“Take-up was as we had expected – at peak times, better than we’d expected – but it’s clear that not all customers are ready for a totally till-free store,” the company said at the time. “Some preferred to pay with cash and card, which sometimes meant that they were queuing to use the help desk.”
Now, though, Sainsbury’s is trying again with what it describes as an “upgraded version of the system” from a third-party supplier, which is thought to be Amazon.
Other retailers are starting to follow suit. So what has changed?
The most significant development in checkout-free shopping has been the advent of Amazon’s proprietary Just Walk Out technology, which means that customers don’t even need to scan their purchases. Instead, weight sensors on the shelves detect when an item has been removed, while hundreds of cameras track people’s movements around the store. The company claims that its innovation has received “fantastic” feedback.
Other retailers seem to believe that this is a technology whose time has come. In recent weeks, both Aldi and Tesco have opened trial checkout-less branches.
Meanwhile, it’s been widely reported that Amazon is planning to open another 260 till-free stores across the UK, although the company has declined to comment on what it calls “rumours and speculation”.
The Retail Banking Research (RBR) consultancy has estimated that there are about 32,000 stores around the world offering mobile self-scanning (using either the shopper’s own smartphone or a store-supplied device). There are 75 completely till-free outlets, most of which are operated by Amazon.
“Aside from Amazon’s stores, similar checkout-free concepts are popping up in countries including Brazil, Canada, China, Poland and Singapore,” reports Alan Burt, an RBR associate. “These tend to be individual stores, rather than a retailer rolling out the concept to its whole network, because the technology is still being piloted.”
Just as there were during the introduction of self-service tills, there are concerns about the staffing levels required in checkout-less outlets. A lack of employees on the shop floor could have a detrimental effect on security, for instance.
“Instinct suggests that it could result in fewer jobs, but we’re waiting and seeing,” says a spokesman for the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (Usdaw). “When I looked at Amazon’s promotional video, I could see two members of staff on duty, but that’s the same number you’d expect in a normal convenience store.”
He adds that, whereas the Co-op has introduced body-cams for supermarket staff linked to a central control system, he has “not seen anything yet to suggest that this kind of support is available in till-less stores”.
There are also concerns that the advent of checkout-free stores fundamentally changes the shopping experience. It may even be exclusionary for a significant proportion of consumers.
Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, warns retailers of the “need to account for the fact that, while new ways of shopping will be convenient for some, nearly half of over-65s in this country don’t use a smartphone and may struggle with new technology. In addition, many older people lack companionship and therefore enjoy the personal interactions that come from shopping.”
Moreover, the Financial Conduct Authority’s Financial Lives 2020 Survey revealed in February that about 20% of the UK’s over-65s – approximately 2.4 million people – were still using cash for almost all payments.
“While innovation can be a good thing, it’s important to remember that many people depend on cash to purchase essential goods and services and could be frozen out if these changes are introduced too rapidly and/or made wholesale,” Abrahams says. “Cash may no longer be king, but will be around for many years to come, so it’s essential that businesses in all sectors enable all of their customers to pay using a mechanism that suits their needs.”
It’s hard to envisage that checkout-free stores could ever take over from conventional shops altogether. While the supermarket chains are understandably reluctant to discuss the level of investment involved, such technology clearly doesn’t come cheap.
Burt notes that most checkout-less outlets to date have “mainly been small-format convenience style stores. This makes sense, as the technology only has to track a relatively small area. It works well in places where customers are popping in for a basket of items, rather than doing their weekly shop with a trolley. Scaling up to a supermarket would obviously be more expensive, as you’d need more cameras and sensors.”
Juniper Research forecasts that the total value of transactions processed by smart checkout technology will rocket from £1.5bn in 2020 to $290bn in 2025. Despite this, it believes that till-free shopping is likely to stay largely confined to convenience stores and, conceivably, larger outlets that may find the investment required easier to justify.
“We think retailers should be investing in their staff rather than getting dazzled by all this new technology,” says Usdaw’s spokesman. “We’re not sure what problem they’re trying to solve – and it must be costing them a fortune.”