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Amazon Go. Photo: Stephen Brashear/Getty

A handful of American companies, from giants like Amazon and Walmart to upstarts like Standard Cognition and Zippin, are betting on a windfall for whoever works out the bugs in cashierless checkout — and makes it cheap. But like so much of tech, it's a global race, and the Chinese are surging ahead.

American retailers may be focused on the wrong thing. Their obsession is with totally hands-free checkout, which Amazon dubs "just walk out." But Chinese retailers have figured out that there are cheaper and easier ways to eliminate checkout lines.

Amazon's technology — through which cameras pick up what shoppers are buying so they can be automatically charged when they leave the store — has thus far only worked in small stores, like a 2,500-square-foot Amazon Go. With its Sam's Club Now, Walmart is going small, too, not having figured out as yet how cashierless can work at a large scale.

But, but, but: China's retail giants — Alibaba and JD.com — have tackled scale and lines without killing checkout altogether. Instead, they use the power of mobile payments. Rather than being monitored by ubiquitous cameras and sensors, Chinese shoppers pay for everything from street food to new laptops by scanning QR codes with their cellphones.

  • This approach works in any size store.
  • It also means that "the shift to cashier-free stores doesn't require as much of a change in consumer habits as it does in the U.S.," says Zoe Leavitt, a retail analyst at CB Insights.
  • For example, shoppers at Alibaba's Hema — its chain of full-size grocery stores — simply stroll the aisles, scanning their vegetables, meat and other goods.

The bottom line: Billions of dollars are being spent on perfecting cashierless checkout, but getting American consumers to switch to mobile payments may be an easier and cheaper way to streamline shopping in the long run.

Go deeper

Biden's pick to lead major banking regulator drops out

Saule Omarova, nominee for Comptroller of the Currency, at a confirmation hearing on Nov. 18. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

President Biden's pick to head one of the country's most powerful banking regulators is dropping out of consideration for the post, according to a statement from Biden that accepted the withdrawal.

Why it matters: Saule Omarova, nominated to lead the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, faced a tough path to confirmation — with opposition from Republicans and moderate Democrats.

Judge temporarily blocks Biden vaccine mandate for federal contractors

President Biden delivers remarks at the White House on Dec. 6 in Washington, D.C. Photo: Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images

A federal judge on Tuesday temporarily blocked President Biden's vaccine mandate for federal contractors nationwide.

Why it matters: It's the latest setback in the Biden administration's rollout of COVID vaccine requirements. Federal judges in two states temporarily barred the administration from enforcing mandates for millions of workers last week.

Biden threatens Putin

Photo: Kremlin Press Office/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

In a video call that lasted for just over two hours on Tuesday, President Biden warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that if Russia invades Ukraine the U.S. will impose unprecedented sanctions and provide additional weaponry to the Ukrainians, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said.

Why it matters: Russia's military activity on the border with Ukraine has triggered alarms from the U.S. and its European allies of a potential large-scale Russian invasion in early 2022. Sullivan said Biden made clear to Putin that, "things we did not do in 2014, we are prepared to do now."