There is more life than "seamless", cashier-free shopping

As a sector, retail has the tendency always to be looking ahead to the next big thing and now we have moved on from ‘omnichannel’ to ‘seamless’ shopping, as it has rapidly come to be known.

Time to consume: 4 min
26 October 2021

You know things are on the move when Tesco, the UK’s largest retailer, starts adopting practices that might have been considered fringe by many and makes them mainstream and the latest instance of this is the checkout-free store.

The location is London’s High Holborn and since mid-October, there has been a Tesco Express (the grocer’s city convenience format) store in which there are no checkouts and where entry is gained by an app-generated QR code. All good, providing you’re in a hurry and the ‘GetGo’ (the Tesco version of Amazon’s ‘Just Walk Out’ strapline) branch happens to coincide with you having downloaded the relevant app and then linked it to your bank account.

The tide is turning when a retail giant picks up the checkout-free baton from Amazon, which has a handful of cashier-less test stores across London. Tesco knows quite a bit about retailing and will make this work. This is in sharp contrast to Amazon’s physical retail credentials, on which the jury is still out.

Checkout-free. The way of the future?

In truth, this is the way of the future, but it is only part of the way. Consider this. There are actually shoppers who like shopping. In the Netherlands, food retailer Jumbo is rolling out checkouts, following a trial in its Udenhout branch, in which you can stop to have a chat with the cashier. This is the almost complete antithesis of the cashier-less store. This is a place in which transactions are actually slowed down, rather than conducted at ever-greater speed, and where the ‘human’ element is to the fore, instead of the shop as tech haven.

What the Jumbo move acknowledges is the fact that there are different sorts of shoppers and they may want different things when it comes to the end of the in-store journey. Self-serve is good for those who want to avoid talking to anybody and for whom the object of the exercise is to get in and out as quickly as possible. But as in every other area of retail, the human touch still matters.

It is worth, at this point, asking yourself a simple question. If you have a trolley filled with food that needs to be totted up and paid for, are you going to head for the self-serve area of a large supermarket? As things stand, you will certainly not be in a cashier-free store, as the overwhelming focus in this respect has been on small format and convenience stores. Working, therefore, on the assumption that you are in a store with a relatively generous footprint that allows multiple manned checkouts to be part of the formula, alongside a self-serve area, which are you going to go for?

Devolved labour at the checkout

The manned checkout has the obvious advantage that part of the labour involved in checking out is devolved to somebody else. All you have to do is pack your bags (unless you happen to be in the US, in which case even this is done for you), maybe have a chat with somebody else in the line or even talk to the individual scanning things as they move along the conveyor belt.

Of course, there are hybrid solutions that are a bit of both world – a self-serve checkout that has a conveyor belt and where the items being bought pass through a tunnel and are automatically scanned and totaled. This does at least mean that you can load all of your shopping onto a conveyor belt and then move to the other end of the checkout to collect the tallied goods. Again, the business of self-scanning has been removed from the process. It’s almost like the best of both checkout-free and manned checkout worlds (providing you don’t want to stop and ‘chat’).


Checkouts and self-service solutions

Cashierless stores become the norm?

The idea therefore that within the current decade we will see nothing but cashier-less stores when we go shopping seems, at best, a little far-fetched. Shops without checkouts will definitely be more common than they are currently, but a little like the once-feared takeover of physical retail by digital merchants, it will only be part of the story.

Quite apart from the expense of paying for and installing the banks of cameras and sensors, as well as the software to operate them, that opening a cashier-free store continues to be posited on, the grab ‘n go convenience shopping mission is not the be-all and end-all.

As a sector, retail has the tendency always to be looking ahead to the next big thing and now that we have moved on from ‘omnichannel’ (most stores now have digital and physical elements), the buzz theme is ‘seamless’ shopping, as it has rapidly come to be known. It has its plus points certainly, but there is and always will be more to life than speed and seemingly greater ease.


More about the Grocery Sector

Article written by
John Ryan
Store design specialist and Newstores founder