Oct 14, 2022 - Technology

Our cashierless future

Illustration of a cash register dissolving in blocks until nothing remains

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

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.

Why it matters: Huge sums are being spent on competing schemes for so-called frictionless checkout, which eliminates both human cashiers and those pesky do-it-yourself scanners.

  • 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.
    • Try it out at Dave & Buster's and arenas such as the Barclays Center, where you can grab food and souvenirs at concessions stores without missing the game.

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."
A "smart" shopping cart in a store.
The Veeve shopping cart can weigh produce and keep track of what shoppers put in it. Photo courtesy of Veeve

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."
A schematic of a self-checkout lane with payment at the turnstile entrance.
Zippin Lane is a self-checkout system that retailers can buy off the shelf. Consumers enter a payment card before they walk in. Rendering courtesy of Zippin

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.

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