Cashierless Systems: The Race to Make Traditional Retail as Convenient as E-commerce

You’re sitting in front of your computer at home. Your browser is open with your usual 1001 tabs, but today they don’t matter because you’re shopping. You add all your items to your cart, fill out all your details and checkout. Now, you sit back, relax and wait — your items will be delivered.  

Now compare this to the traditional retail experience. 

You’re out running errands and you think “I’ll just pop in and out real quick” at the grocery store. So you grab all the items and you line up. Halfway along the line, you realise that you’re going to be late for your next appointment and the cashier seems to be taking her time. 

You consider coming back another day — but then you’d have wasted the time you’ve already spent! So you tap your feet, look at your watch, glare at the cashier and keep waiting. 

We’ve all dealt with “check out line fury” at some point. It’s a feeling that’s hard to pin down, so overwhelming in the moment, but seems so trivial in retrospect. It’s a waste of emotional energy.

Considering how far technology has advanced, it’s hard to believe that this sort of thing is still so commonplace. Shouldn’t we have figured out an alternative to standing in line by now? 

It’s a work in progress

In fact, some companies have already been looking into it, with one of the most high profile ones being Amazon. These companies have experimented with different versions of the “cashierless checkout” method with varying degrees of success. 

Amazon’s version removes the need for check out at all but requires customers to download the Amazon Go app. When they visit Amazon Go stores, they have to pass through gateways that scan a QR code on their apps before entry. 

Once the customers are in the store, they simply take items off the shelf and when they’re done, just walk out. All the items they’ve taken get added to their virtual cart and the app takes payment from their credit card.  

The system makes use of computer vision and other sensors, as well as machine learning (ML) and as with many ML systems let loose in the real world, it has its limits. Apparently, the system even had issues differentiating shoppers with similar body types or keeping track of items that were moved to the wrong places on shelves. 

In a race to respond to consumer demand for a more seamless checkout experience, other companies have also attempted their own versions of cashierless checkouts. Some are variations of Amazon’s system while others are less high tech. 

However, the road towards a quick and intuitive checkout (or checkout-free) scenario has been far from smooth. 

What’s holding us back?

The hefty cost, for one thing, is an issue when it comes to companies wanting to roll out cashierless systems in their stores. The Amazon Go method that requires computer vision, sensor technology and machine learning sounds capital intensive. And it is. 

Even setting up a more rudimentary system requires a large upfront investment. It’s important for companies implementing these cashierless systems to see a return on investment. This might come in the form of less staff on payroll, a higher turnover of shoppers, or even an increase in shopping cart totals. In either case, the system needs to be able to perform smoothly and independently. 

But in a world as diverse as ours, it’s difficult to design a system that works flawlessly for every single individual. There are people who may be less tech-savvy, some who may not own smartphones, others still who might not be able to operate the system for any amount of reasons. 

Even with proven systems — like what we currently have — cashiers themselves have issues with barcode scanning. (Remember those times when a barcode didn’t work and we’d have to wait for the cashier’s colleague to come over to punch in a serial number?) Imagine someone totally new to the system trying to use it.  

The variables don’t end there. There’s also a large variety of products. Imagine buying produce at a grocery store. You pick what you want, then head over to the weighing station where an attendant weighs your items and gives you a price. In a cashierless system, how would this work

There are also other issues to deal with, for example, theft. Cashierless systems would have to take this possibility into account. Although there are already systems that are able to reduce theft, the flipside to consider is consumer privacy

With cameras following customers all around the store, not to mention the automatic deduction from customer credit cards through the app, cashierless systems have to walk that fine line between security and invasion of privacy. 

An exciting future for retail

All that said, it’s exciting to see that there are already serious players in this industry with systems that are already working. With e-commerce growing in popularity, retail companies are beginning to see the need to recreate a similar experience in their brick-and-mortar stores. 

Besides the ability to increase customer engagement and build brand awareness, having customers shop in-store (instead of online) also helps retail companies save cost on shipping and handling. 

Although Amazon may have had a headstart in terms of tackling this issue, there are other tech companies and startups rising up as legit challengers. While many of them have been making ground, with some implementing their systems for actual retail clients, there are still problems that they have to work out before their solutions are able to scale. 

The jury’s still out on who will come out on top. But if any of these companies want to go down in history for changing the retail landscape, they’ll have to work out all the bugs and provide their solution at a price point that makes sense.    

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