Big media day yesterday covering the news that Amazon has debuted its checkout-free store concept in London.
This is watershed moment for U.K. retail. Amazon is known for disrupting the status quo, raising customer expectations and forcing competitors to raise their game. Remember Amazon is a tech company first, retailer second. The big question is – does Amazon really want to become Britain’s biggest supermarket or perhaps it’s more lucrative to license this tech to… everyone else? Either way, Amazon transformed the checkout experience online and will now do the same in-store. Goodbye, friction!
Picture this – a radical new grocery concept designed to revolutionize how Americans shop. The store is much smaller than your typical supermarket, around 10,000 square feet and stocking an edited range of just several thousand products. The store doesn’t feature banks of traditional checkouts; instead it’s a heavily automated and efficiency-driven experience. There are no bakeries, butchers, or any of the counter services you’d find in most supermarkets.
Nope, I’m not talking about Amazon’s latest cashierless grocery format, Amazon Go Grocery, which launched in Seattle this week. I’m talking about the now defunct Fresh & Easy, Tesco’s failed attempt to crack the US grocery market.
In my latest piece for Forbes, I explore 3 key learnings for Amazon:
We all know it’s only a matter of time beforeAmazon Go reaches UK shores. Trademarks have long been registered, the rumours have been flying and, havingdebuted in New York Citylast month, it’s fair to say that Amazon has an appetite for urban expansion.
This explainsSainsbury’s recent scramble to open the first till-free store in the UK, a PR coup ahead ofAmazon’s inevitable incursion.
And they’re not alone – pretty much every grocer from Tesco to Marks & Spencer is trialling scan-and-go technology, self-ordering kiosks are now the norm at McDonald’s and Argosquietly launched its first self-service digital store last month. Time is the new currency.
Checkout-free shopping will particularly cater to busy city workers on their lunch break and it will undoubtedly hit travel retail hard – till-free will become the norm in airports and train stations five years from now. But is this really the future of retail?
The customer experience is paramount, but today ‘frictionless’ often translates as ‘soulless’. Most shoppersstill value human interaction in-storeand, as we’ve witnessed with self-checkout, there will be resistance among some shoppers to do the heavy lifting themselves.
Take the new Sainsbury’s trial, for example: for a store that’s all about reducing friction, there’s certainly a lot of it initially as shoppers have to download the app and get used to scanning QR codes.
Let’s not forget that, a few years ago,Morrisonsscaled back its self-checkout ambitions in response to customer feedback. There has been a lot of hype about automation, but when it comes to responding to disruption, retailers must not lose the human touch.
Checkout-free stores can be controversial. Not only because they will accelerate the number of retail job losses (according to the Office for National Statistics, 25% of supermarket checkout jobs disappeared between 2011 and 2017), but also because going cashless can be seen as discriminatory towards customers without bank accounts or smartphones.
This summer, Philadelphia will be the first US city to prohibit cashless stores, and a growing number of cities are considering a similar ban. Amazon has had little choice but to begrudgingly adapt, and its shiny new Manhattan store is the first Go branch to accept cash.
Lastly, we must acknowledge the elephant in the room: theft. Today, it feels unnatural to bypass the checkout, and Amazon says it takes customers several visits before they no longer feel like they’re shoplifting.
But theft is a genuine concern and was one of the reasons Walmart shelved its scan-and-go programme in the US last year, with a former executive joking that the scheme should have been simply called “‘go’ because the customers can’t seem to ‘scan’ anything”.
The biggest retailer in the world is now embracing a mobile point-of-sale solution. Equipping more staff with handheld devices so shoppers can pay on the spot is a solid compromise – you still provide a frictionless checkout experience while taking the onus off the customer and alleviating concerns over shrinkage.
I don’t doubt that the digital store is the future of retail or that checkout-free shopping will appeal to certain customers and shopping missions. But consumer adoption will be slow, and they will never replace manned checkouts entirely, which is why the hysteria over till-free stores is unwarranted.
Automation is coming but, in the process, retailers must ensure they don’t kill the experience they are working so hard to improve.
I’m so excited to launch, in partnership with retail technology leader Red Ant, the first of a three-part series of whitepapers to explore how the retail industry will have to embrace the digital store and seamless shopping to survive, from frictionless checkout to hyper-personalisation and clienteling. There’s no doubt that the industry has undergone seismic change in the last few years, and it’s not over yet.
store is not dead
Over the past decade, we’ve witnessed the birth of the
‘on-my-terms’ shopper and the seemingly unstoppable rise of e-commerce. Today’s
ubiquitously connected shoppers are firmly in the driving seat, and retailers
are scrambling to keep up with dramatic shifts in both customer behaviour and
It’s clear that not all retailers have been equipped to deal with
the accelerated pace of change facing the industry. As such, we’ve seen
high-profile casualties on the high street as well as record numbers of job
losses and store closures. And we should be bracing ourselves for more short-term
pain as the industry reconfigures for the digital age. Although it’s not quite
a retail apocalypse, there are a couple of important points that we must
We have an oversupply of retail space. According to the Office for National Statistics, online sales accounted for less than 5% of UK retail sales in 2009. Fast forward to 2019 – a whopping 20% of retail sales now take place online. Although e-commerce shouldn’t be viewed as the death knell for the high street, retailers must streamline their store portfolios to better reflect consumer demand. The future is fewer, more impactful stores.
There is no room for mediocre retail. In today’s climate, you have to be on top of your game. The retailers that are struggling right now share some common traits – they lack agility, differentiation, relevance. They try to be all things to all people. They don’t have a compelling purpose. And having an iconic brand doesn’t make you immune to the broader challenges facing the high street. This is retail Darwinisim – put simply, you evolve or die. But, for those brands willing to adapt, this is a fantastically exciting time to be in retail.
Stores will undoubtedly continue to play a critical role in retail
for decades to come, but, in a nutshell, customers will expect to shop on their terms, not the terms dictated to
them by the retailer. This means that high street retailers need to ensure
they’re saving customers’ time or enhancing it. There is no longer a middle
ground. We believe that stores of the future will be:
– to keep up with online retail
– to distance themselves from online
Ahub for fulfilment – to bridge the gap between online and
Those retailers who use the right
digital platform to transform and tailor in-store experiences will be able to
ensure differentiation from rivals and relevance to customers.