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GUEST COMMENT Checkoutless stores: a piece of the future or the whole story?

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We all have varying check out needs, and quirks when it comes to shopping in person and online. Some like to browse, take their time and chat with staff, perhaps to aid discovery, some can’t think of anything worse and want to make their supermarket (or similar) trip as swift as possible.

The former is commonplace in trade and department store settings, or even at your local deli, where exploration is encouraged given the variety, quality of stock and knowledge needed to help make the right purchases. At your average supermarket or high street store, most of us don’t require the same kind of premium service, but that isn’t to say that it should be ruled out.

In recent years, we’ve seen innovative ways to checkout come to fruition in the retail space. Here, we’ll look at the different modes in relation to the different customer needs they’re meeting.

The state of play and what’s sticking

The checkout experiences brands offer should always be determined by your customers’ needs and the type of business you are.

As a supermarket, you’re probably focusing on the need for speed and ease hence the wide introduction of self checkout, and end of more conventional modes. Since 2016, Amazon Fresh (GO in the US) has been doubling down on its UK presence and gaining attention as a brand evolving the frictionless self-checkout environment.

In non-grocery stores, the likes of ZARA have adopted self checkouts too, which are a take on those we find in supermarkets. Shoppers place their items in the checkout bay and cameras and sensors identify what’s been placed down using radio-frequency identification technology, removing the need to scan.

Honing in on the scan of items specifically is a smart move on ZARA’s part. One of the main points of contention for shoppers using this mode is incorrect identification, or weight management that’s only remedied by sales assistants who are typically outnumbered by checkouts. Having removed the need to scan, ZARA shoppers’ need for speed is met.

Yet, often staffed checkouts still remain given our different preferences i.e. why do I go to the shop; is it for a conversation? To grab a quick bite? To receive consultation or even to have a conversation? As well as people’s sometimes limited digital dexterity and individual frustrations associated with self-checkouts.

The pandemic: a change of pace for click and collect

As the pandemic took hold of and altered our everyday lives, stores quickly adapted to ensure we remained safe while shopping. This meant a number of new solutions that came thick and fast to meet our evolving needs, seemingly on the fly.

In some contexts, Click & Collect with curbside pick-up was, for a good number of months, the only mode a lot of people had access to. With stores closed, many people had no option but to browse and order online and with deliveries unpredictable and the cost of them mounting many opted to “click” and later “collect” purchases.

This method is still preferred by many and often equates to less time waiting, and removes the shipping cost. It also blends with more hybrid lives where people are venturing back into working environments typically located more centrally than their homes. For retailers, it can also add to order value if collected in-store as people may be more likely to make serendipitous discoveries when picking up their ordered goods. When at the curbside rather than in store it also caters for people’s ability to pick up larger items in vehicles. For those watching their money, or in need of something quickly, this option serves well too.

We’re seeing variations of Click & Collect used by more high street stores including ZARA and Urban Outfitters who provide the option of having items delivered to a locker or parcel stop. Moreover, when returning items, online shoppers have several options, including handy in-store drop off points.

The customer as employee in the retail context

While not new, Amazon Fresh and China’s JD in The Netherlandsoperate like warehouses where customers are akin to the operatives with fulfilment now in their hands.

In Amazon outlets, customers enter by linking their Amazon account and payment method to Amazon Fresh with the Amazon app. They then receive a QR code to scan on entry, and then pick items off shelves and place them straight into their bags. Using state of the art cameras, and specialist weighing mechanics, the store automatically charges your mobile device upon leaving, having calculated what’s been picked up, and even placed back.

With JD, customers browse at home, choose an item and then visit the store, scanning the QR code instore and waiting for the conveyor to send down their goods. Aside from the collection environment, products are presented in unique and interesting displays akin to a showrooming experience. This facilitates richer product discovery with people on hand to provide specific knowledge and consultation as opposed to purely staffing checkout terminals or more generic sales information.

In Amazon’s case, carefully mapping items in this way is a huge technological achievement and offers a new way of serving customers who crave ease. However, mapping these spaces relies on total customer coverage and some are rightly concerned with this perceived level of ‘surveillance’ in store – especially people of colour, who are often subject to racial profiling.

Brands looking to follow in Amazon’s footsteps have a responsibility to ensure they’re being designed with these concerns in mind and meeting a need and/or solving a problem, without inadvertently creating another.

Moreover, with the rising cost of living, and a lot of people thinking more carefully about their money, these retailers may want to think twice about removing friction altogether when it comes to brand perception and supporting responsible spending. The ease of tap and go has already widened the gap between ’cause and effect’ when it comes to money and the items we receive. People have little to no idea what it costs to fill up a car or do a weekly shop.

In stores with self-serve or staffed checkouts, tap and go is also already an instantaneous interaction, in checkoutless stores this is taken further. There’s no pause or consideration when everything has already been itemised and essentially paid for before you even exit. At staffed checkouts, or self checkouts, there are pauses and real people connected to those pauses.

Despite this, it remains clear that checkoutless stores have benefits for people such as those with mobility issues who may struggle to unpack an entire grocery basket at a till only to repack into a bag of their own. The same applies for those exhibiting a particular kind of purchasing behaviour.

Part of the future, but not the whole picture

Brands should be mindful of the emergence of these offering but should not jump on the bandwagon and rush to turn their stores into pure-play self-serve/kiosk/grab&go/robots without first:

(1) Understanding their customers, cultural context, and the market category their products fall under.

(2) Running pilots and researching outcomes and feeding this into the product evolution.

(3) Deciding to implement some level of “frictionless” shopping while connecting this to the brand’s overall retail strategy including location.

(4) Once frictionless stores are live, carefully monitor and feed the data into any strategy for scale and store evolution. Currently, store numbers in this segment are relatively low and small in terms of the space they cover.

Checkoutless stores won’t completely disrupt retail immediately. Shopping isn’t about buying alone, it’s about the overall experience. Expectations of that experience are determined by what is being bought and the context surrounding that purchase. Checkoutless stores do buying really well but not shopping where indulgence, understanding and browsing is often more commonplace.


George Ioannou, managing partner at Foolproof, a Zensar company

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