Our cashierless future
Walk into a store, take what you want, and leave without pulling out your wallet or standing in line — this is the vision for next-generation checkout.
- Sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI) systems, now rolling out in supermarkets and convenience stores, rely on squadrons of cameras and sensors to monitor what you pick up (and put back).
- You scan your phone or a credit card at the store entrance or exit, and an itemized bill appears automatically.
- The new systems will test our tolerance for a big-brotherish shopping experience — one that sends us more ads and "personalized recommendations" based on the Mallomars and Diet Cokes we bought.
Driving the news: Amid the labor shortage and advances in AI, giant retailers are experimenting with advanced checkout systems meant to reduce our time waiting in line and scanning items.
- Amazon's "Just Walk Out" technology — known as JWO — lets you enter a turnstile-protected store and get billed for the items you leave with.
- It's being piloted in Whole Foods, Amazon Go and Amazon Fresh stores, plus airports (LaGuardia, Dallas Fort Worth, etc.) and sports stadiums.
- Amazon is also trying to sell its cashierless tech to retailers more broadly.
- Grabango has a competing system, but without entrance gates — customers pay at an exit kiosk.
- It's being used at Giant Eagle, Circle K, BP and MAPCO.
- Zippin's system involves tapping a payment card at an entrance turnstile.
A different paradigm employs a "smart" shopping cart that keeps a running tally of your purchases on a touchscreen upfront. Albertsons is testing such a system with a vendor called Veeve.
What they're saying: "Checkout lines are one of the biggest bottlenecks in modern retail," Krishna Motukuri, CEO and co-founder of Zippin, tells Axios.
- "The newer model is entirely checkout free — the customer doesn't have to do any extra work. That is essentially the game-changer here."
Where it stands: Systems that rely on consumers to scan-and-pay are notoriously balky and unpopular (and embarrassing for those of us who need the clerk to swoop in) — yet increasingly ubiquitous, as retailers seek to trim labor costs.
- Today's familiar self-checkout machines "are expensive to install, often break down and can lead to customers purchasing fewer items," CNN reports.
- They also seem to encourage shoplifting — so much so that Wegmans recently scrapped its app-based system due to loss. (Walmart had a similar experience.)
How it works: Next-gen systems use cameras and sensors in ceilings and shelves to follow you as you shop and keep tabs on what you select (and put back).
- "We track people throughout the store like dots on a map," says Motukuri of Zippin.
- "The only way the dot is linked to a physical human is through the payment card," he said. "We don't use biometrics, so there's no way to tell who you are."
- Motukuri said the Zippin system's accuracy rate is 99.87% — and other vendors make similar assertions.
Another system — Grabango — doesn't rely on entrance turnstiles, but lets shoppers walk in freely and pay as they exit.
- "It's the next level of sophistication, that is pure computer vision," says Andrew Radlow, Grabango's chief revenue officer.
- Retailers love it because it thwarts shoplifting, Radlow said.
- "From the shoppers' side, it is a little bit magical," he said. "Just tap the card and leave."
Yes, but: A "mystery shop" of four Just Walk Out stores found shoppers were confused about how it works and had "a preference towards registers manned by cashiers," per a report by Alvarez & Marsal, a retail consulting firm.
- The plus side: The tech offers "an exciting, new alternative that spruces up the shopping experience."
- The downside: Testers found a high error rate on a trip to Whole Foods, where the system struggled with things like "fresh produce delineation (e.g., separating a regular vs. organic mango)."
🛒 So funny it hurts: A "Saturday Night Live" spoof of Just Walk Out tech highlighted skepticism among Black consumers, who are too often accused of shoplifting.
The bottom line: We already live with Siri, Alexa, the Ring doorbell and other "ambient computing" devices. Retail shopping looks like the next frontier.