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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

Updated 46 mins ago - World

Mexican President López Obrador tests positive for coronavirus

Mexico's President Andrés Manuel López Obrador during a press conference at National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico, on Wednesday. Photo: Ismael Rosas/Eyepix Group/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced Sunday evening that he's tested positive for COVID-19.

Driving the news: López Obrador tweeted that he has mild symptoms and is receiving medical treatment. "As always, I am optimistic," he added. "We will all move forward."

Sarah Huckabee Sanders to run for governor of Arkansas

Sarah Huckabee Sanders at FOX News' studios in New York City in 2019. Photo: Steven Ferdman/Getty Images

Former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders will announce Monday that she's running for governor of Arkansas.

The big picture: Sanders was touted as a contender after it was announced she was leaving the Trump administration in June 2019. Then-President Trump tweeted he hoped she would run for governor, adding "she would be fantastic." Sanders is "seen as leader in the polls" in the Republican state, notes the Washington Post's Josh Dawsey, who first reported the news.

Coronavirus has inflamed global inequality

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

History will likely remember the pandemic as the "first time since records began that inequality rose in virtually every country on earth at the same time." That's the verdict from Oxfam's inequality report covering the year 2020 — a terrible year that hit the poorest, hardest across the planet.

Why it matters: The world's poorest were already in a race against time, facing down an existential risk in the form of global climate change. The coronavirus pandemic could set global poverty reduction back as much as a full decade, according to the World Bank.