End of the checkout queue? Stores rush to deploy till-free technology

·6 min read

“Don’t worry, you’re just a dot on a screen like in Pac-Man,” says Bilal, a Tesco shop assistant, when a customer expresses concern about the hundreds of cameras tracking them as they browse in the new “checkout-free” store in central London.

From the outside this Tesco Express on High Holborn looks identical to thousands of others across the country. But inside there are no tills and no self-checkout machines. Instead you scan a QR code on your phone to gain entry, and a complex system of cameras and weighted shelves figure out what you have picked up. Once you’re done you just walk out and your phone (eventually) buzzes to tell you how much you’ve spent.

“It creates like an exoskeleton image of you and follows you around and knows what products you have bought,” Bilal explains. “But don’t worry, it’s not recording you and we don’t know who you are.”

Big retailers around the world reckon the technology in use at this Tesco GetGo store on High Holborn will revolutionise shopping and could account for $400bn (£290bn) of transactions within five years, according to analysts at Juniper Research.

The Holborn shop is new but Tesco has been trialling the technology at an Express outlet at its headquarters in Welwyn Garden City since 2019. That was two years before Amazon launched the first of its similar “till-less” stores in the UK in Ealing in the spring. There are now six of the “just walk out” Amazon Fresh outlets in London and the company has plans for dozens more.

In the US, Amazon has more than 20 of the stores (branded Amazon Go and Amazon Fresh) and it will also launch the technology in branches of Whole Foods in California and Washington DC.

Amazon has so far licensed its technology to 10 third-party retailers and hospitality venues. They include Chicago’s United Center, the home of the NBA’s Chicago Bulls and the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks, helping reduce queues for sports fans. Kevin O’Brien, the venue’s director of food and beverages, said: “Nobody likes lines, right? So what we’ve seen – we’ve had this open for several games and several concerts over the last couple months – it is an absolute line-buster.”

Back in the UK, Aldi is preparing to open its first checkout-free store in Greenwich. Morrisons is testing its own vision of the technology, codenamed Project Sarah, at its Bradford headquarters and has plans to quickly roll out dozens of small stores at busy locations.

Sainsbury’s opened a till-less store just down the street from the Tesco GetGo in Holborn in April 2019, but reintroduced tills five months later as customers struggled with that system, which required shoppers to scan items with their phones.

Laura Saunter, a senior retail analyst at the consumer trends analyst firm WSGN, says supermarkets have been rushing to deploy technology to address shoppers’ “number one pain point” – queuing. “People don’t want to queue any more,” she says. “People will put stuff back and walk out of the store if there’s a line of people in front of them for a till or self-checkout machine.”

Saunter says while cashier-less stores have only recently arrived in the UK, they are well established in China and South Korea and similar technology is being used at festivals and sports stadiums. In Norway and Sweden some small rural stores are operating with no staff at all, with customers able to unlock stores doors with their smartphones.

“These stores are positioned at millennial parents who are busy, they want to be in and out, they don’t want to waste their time,” Saunter says. “And younger people, generation Z, just don’t want to interact with store staff.”

Saunter’s assertion is endorsed by three London School of Economics students who have popped in to the Tesco GetGo after seeing a video of it on TikTok. “It’s way more convenient,” says Thea Hines, 19, who is studying geography and Spanish. “If you just want to grab something quickly, you don’t want to queue, you don’t want to talk to a cashier. It did take a long time to set up the app, but it will be quick next time.”

However, Hines is concerned that she has no idea how much money she has spent as a receipt has not yet come through to her phone. “I’d be interested to know if people spend more money than they would in a normal store where you see the prices coming up on the screen.”

A Tesco employee holds out a leaflet at the GetGo store
A Tesco employee holds out a leaflet at the GetGo store. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Not everyone welcomes the new technology. Melanie Casey, 45, who works for a nearby animation company, makes a point of stopping to tell the Tesco staff why she won’t be shopping at the store.

“I used to come in this shop all the time, but I won’t be going in now. It’s terrible, replacing the people with technology, they are taking away people’s jobs,” she says. “I feel very strongly about this. It used to be friendly; when you went in you met people and said ‘how are you?’. I don’t want to be like a robot getting my stuff without interacting with anyone.”

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has said supermarket cashier jobs are among the most at risk from being replaced by automation, with 65% of checkout operator jobs at risk.

The technology used in the Tesco store was developed by an Israeli technology company, Trigo Tech, in which Tesco invested an undisclosed multimillion-pound sum in 2019.

Yair Holtzer, Trigo’s vice-president of business development, says the company is working to deploy the technology in five “tier one” retailer chains across Europe, including Tesco, Aldi Nord and Germany’s Rewe, as well as North American and Asian supermarkets. The firm is also in talks with pharmacies and coffee shop chains. “A lot of people want to grab a coffee and sandwich; this technology can save those lines in the mornings.”

A big benefit of the technology, Holtzer says, is cutting down on “shrinkage”, which is code for theft from the store. “With this technology, you can’t really steal, we know who is in the store and we know where all the products are.”

A Tesco spokesperson said the company would still invest in staff and “will have the same number of colleagues in our Holborn store now as before it was frictionless. This is a one-store trial and we look forward to seeing how our customers respond.”

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