The future of till-free shopping

When we’re used to hauling our shopping out of the basket and placing tins, packets and bottles on a conveyor belt or self-checkout counter, it’s going to be a little strange getting used to being waved through by a security guard without any interaction at the checkout. This vision of the future looks set to be the reality for a growing number of shoppers if the trend towards till-free grocery shopping takes off.

In the US, Amazon Go is set to disrupt convenience retail as we know it.  With just 12 outlets currently, but many thousands likely in the next few years, a growing number of retailers worldwide are looking to develop their own version in response. A notable example is Sainsbury’s, which launched its till-free store in Central London in April.

Consumers are already acquainted with an assistant-lite experience in grocery stores. The abundance of self-checkouts or Pay & Go scanners and smartphone apps means staff interactions are cut to the bare minimum for many; the occasional age-related approval for a bottle of wine, coupled with some unexpected items in the bagging area, tends to be the limit.

But while innovative and certainly timesaving, the new experience can’t be called entirely seamless. First, there is the physical aspect. Whether it’s a handset or a phone, juggling a scanner while you manage bags for life, baskets, products and/or children is a challenge.

The Sainsbury’s Pay & Go app experience is by no means unique in its set-up. Shoppers are required to download an app, then give it permission to access the phone’s camera in order to scan the products. This can be tricky if your phone is struggling to navigate the 4G network. The app also needs to be connected to the Nectar loyalty card, which is difficult for those who do not have one. If the shopper isn’t carrying their loyalty card, they will need to access the website – an added hassle for those who can’t remember their password.

Reception for ‘scan and pay’ technologies has been mixed. In January 2019, speaking at Retail’s Big Show, Matt Clifton, Head of Change at Waitrose, said that Quick Check was popular with some of Waitrose’s key customers. Even though it accounted for only 6% of transactions, this is important because those customers were its most profitable.

Research from GPShopper suggests that 48% of US-based internet users believe scan-and-go technology makes shopping easier while 43% would rather try it than wait in line. However, Walmart in the US abandoned its Mobile Express Scan & Go technology in 2018 because few customers used it and the technology was deemed too difficult to use.

The Amazon Go model should do away with these hurdles, simply because there is no consumer interaction technology at all. The 100 ceiling-mounted cameras identify consumers and what they’re picking up. These coordinate with shelf-embedded weight sensors which register products as they are removed. Products are tracked through the store (so customers aren’t charged for a product they pick up and later discard before checkout) and paid for as customers pass through the exit.

Further research from MuleSoft suggests that if the friction-free Amazon Go experience were on offer, 60% of internet users would go for it in other retailers. As you might expect, the 18-34 age group liked it best, but nearly half of 55+ shoppers were also keen to give it a try.

But retailers are still going to have to look beyond the functional. Amazon’s ability to research and recommend, based on consumer data, is well-known. We fully expect this experience to cross over from the online site into the physical store, and this will test the digital capabilities of traditional store-based retailers.

Will the human interaction vanish altogether? There is an argument that says store staff  roles may evolve but will still be important. Think of the traditional advice from the meat or deli counter, help with navigation or just the social need for conversation. They are all part of a satisfactory customer experience.

It is vital that the store of the future can deliver a seamless, friction-free experience.  However, this cannot be at the expense of customer service. When convenience becomes a level playing field, and thus a hygiene factor, there needs to be another trigger for loyalty. With so much technology to hand, retailers need to work harder on their human, emotional resonance to win against Amazon, and each other.

Nick Everitt, director of advisory, Edge by Ascential

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