Cashierless stores. Amazing or threatening?

Shopping without checkouts, it all sounds so convenient. You just walk around the supermarket and sign in with a mobile app. You grab everything you need, and you walk out the store. Just like that. The amount you should normally pay at the checkout, will be deducted from your account automatically.

Besides supermarkets, you can also shop like this at warehouses and hardware stores. Is shopping without cashiers really as easy as it seems? How does it work and what do we think about it? In this blog we will point out the pros and cons and discuss the implementation.

Shopping without a checkout. How does it work?

Shopping without a checkout is most certainly not easy to realize. It has taken a huge enterprise like Amazon years to set it up and they are still in the trial phase. But first, let us explain how this works. The most important ingredients for shopping without a checkout are sensors and cameras. Once you walk into a store, you sign into an app on your mobile phone. Through this app you will be identified. You can grab the things you need while this app also connects your purchases to your bank account or credit card.

Cameras throughout the store identify you, based on your figure (length and size). Due to the privacy law no face recognition is used (although, they do use face recognition in China). The cameras and sensors in the store are placed throughout the store and shelves and register every product you grab. Before you leave the store, you sign out at a terminal and you receive an (electronic) receipt.

Back in the day, they thought shopping without a checkout would be realized using RFID. However, RFID turned out to be too expensive and complicated as liquids and aluminum can disturb the RFID-signals. To make this work, special RFID-tags have to be used but these are too expensive for cheap, everyday groceries. With computer vision, deep learning algorithms and sensor fusion we are almost there!

Mistake? Swap? Hard to process.

Having the cameras and sensors to recognize that you grab something is step one. However, they also need to detect when you put it back or swap it for something else. For example, when you first grab cereals of brand A, but you decide you actually want cereals of brand B. Or when you grab three bags of potatoes and put two back because you prefer pasta tonight instead of potatoes. It seems very hard to technically signal and process all this and generate a correct receipt.

Crowds are challenging.

On top of the return-and-swap challenge, we have the challenge of crowds. Amazon opened a store for its own employees in Seattle in 2018 after four years of working and improving the techniques for shopping without a checkout. They soon realized that the bustle of crowds in the store is very hard to process. Imagine a supermarket on a Saturday. So many people walking around, crossing each other, reaching at the same products simultaneously… And what about products that are almost identical and put back in the wrong place? The technique did recognize all these events, but processing so much data in a short time caused errors and faulty receipts.

Just like Amazon, Albert Heijn has opened a store for employees in Zaandam to investigate if shopping without a checkout is something that could be rolled out to a few stores in the future.

The pros of shopping without a checkout.

Shopping without a checkout mainly offers a certain convenience for the consumer. No queues, no cashiers, just grab the products you need and leave.

Also, shoplifters will be minimalized. You can only get access after identifying and registering through the app and everything you take out of the store will be deducted from your account.

As a retailer, you will need less employees as the checkouts will be cut out. Naturally, the implementation of all the techniques, cameras and sensors will be a big investment, but employees are costly as well. However, the time needed for scheduling, holidays and absence will be reduced.

Shopping without a checkout does not mean you can cut out all the employees. You will always need employees to advise, answer questions, refill the shelves, clean up and help customers with returns or swaps.

The cons of shopping without a checkout.

A disadvantage of this innovation is that both, consumers and retailers, worry about the customers’ privacy. What is registered? What happens with all the information? Is this information kept safe? In fact, this technique can be compared to a loyalty card which only contains information about your buying behavior. This new technique does not need any extra information. Retailers will not be able to get control over your bank account. Only the amount of the purchased goods can be charged.

Another disadvantage is that many people might miss a chat with the cashier. This is a very sensitive subject as loneliness is becoming a bigger issue in this world’s society. Will we, surrounded by so much technology, also lose the personal contact in shops?

Shopping without a checkout: we look forward to it!

At Dalosy, we think there will not be any sudden changes. If the trial phase appears to be successful, retailers will definitely open some shops without checkouts. But there is no need to be afraid of this change. We do not expect a large number of cashierless shops any time soon. There will be enough stores left where you can do groceries the ‘normal way’. The technique will remain the biggest challenge for now. But this very same technique is a wonderful development that we eagerly await.

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