/ Shopping

Does Amazon’s checkout-free supermarket spell the end of tills?

supermarket till

Imagine walking in to a supermarket, picking up a sandwich for lunch and walking straight out again. No queuing up to pay at the tills. Welcome to checkout-free shopping, says our guest, Hannah Jolliffe.

If Amazon’s latest checkout-free technology catches on then this could become a commonplace scenario: carrying items out of a shop without stopping to pay for them or being stopped by security staff.

Of course, when I say ‘no paying’ that doesn’t mean that you won’t be charged. Amazon will be adding your items to your ‘virtual cart’ and charging your account instead.

‘Just walk out technology’

All sounding a bit scary? It could be a lot closer than you think, as Amazon Go’s first checkout-free supermarket has opened this week in Seattle. Its glossy marketing video shows carefree customers gaily skipping around the shop, helping themselves to what they want…

If, like me, you’re a little confused about how this actually works then I’m sure you’ll be reassured by Amazon’s brilliant explanation:

‘How does it work? We use computer vision, deep learning algorithms and sensor fusion, much like you’d find in self-driving cars. We call it “just walk out technology”.’

Great, I’m glad that’s all cleared up then.

Testing the technology

Joking aside, there do seem to have been some hiccups with Amazon’s checkout-free technology. For example, when the store was triallled by Amazon employees in December there were problems with it identifying people with similar body types. And when children were brought into the shop during the test phase, they apparently caused chaos by moving items.

So, what happens when a customer gets charged for items they haven’t taken? Will we need to carefully scrutinise our accounts to see if items have been collected correctly? And how will Amazon know if we are eligible for a refund or not? I can image a long, dull process of trying to get my money back.

Problems with technology taking over our shopping needs also emerged when Britain’s first cyborg shop assistant Fabio was sacked after sending customers to the wrong place and generally causing confusion. Could this be a sign that we aren’t yet ready to be handing out P45s to our shop assistants?

Are you ready for a cash-free society?

We’ve talked a lot about how society is becoming increasingly ‘cashless’ here on Which? Conversation recently with the news that 10,000 free cashpoints could disappear from our high streets. There also seems to be a growing dependence on chip and Pin. Is this latest development from Amazon another (big) step in the direction towards a cashless society?

While I’m not very surprised to see this technology being rolled out, I’m still a little alarmed by it. The simple interactions involved when shopping play an important role in creating a sense of community. When the need to make basic pleasantries with shopkeepers is gone, there will be even fewer opportunities for strangers to interact.

OK, it will take time to get this technology working properly and to then roll it out to smaller independent shops. But it’s highly likely that the next generation may never experience paying for items at a till.

This is a guest contribution by Hannah Jolliffe. All views expressed here are Hannah’s own and not necessarily those also shared by Which?.

Do you want to see checkout-free shops in the UK?

No – what’s wrong with the system we have? (75%, 524 Votes)

Yes – it will be quicker and easier (13%, 94 Votes)

Only in bigger supermarkets (11%, 79 Votes)

Total Voters: 697

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Does Amazon’s checkout-free grocery store alarm you or are you excited by the prospect of a world that offers more convenience and speed?

Comments
Member

In the same way that supermarkets and other self-service stores introduced considerable opportunity for shoplifters, so will this new technology, but shoplifting will present new technical challenges.

Of course the cost of shoplifting will be shared by us all. 🙁

I’m trying to remember what we had before supermarkets and seem to think we stood in a queue at a counter waiting for someone to fetch each item we wanted to buy. That seems every bit as odd as what Amazon is proposing.

Member

After a test-run of self-scanning, I decided against it as I didn’t trust myself to scan everything properly and didn’t want to accidentally get accused of theft.

A quick search brought up: https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/5216851/self-scan-shoppers-supermarkets-stealing-3-billion-year/

With Amazon, thieves will be able to blame it on technology.

Member
Rowan says:
25 January 2018

Yes, I remember going shopping with my Nan in the late 1950’s, being served at the counter (in J. Sainsbury’s!) by assistants that cut and weighed the exact amount of cheese, bacon, ham etc for you – a bit like the modern deli in supermarkets now, except this was the norm then – and the assistant getting your tins of soup, packets of biscuits, tea and sugar etc. You then went to the butcher for your meat, the fishmonger for your fish, and your greengrocer for your vegetables, and the hardware shop for any domestic products. You paid in cash, and Nan could tell what her change would be before the shop assistant produced it.
When the first tiny self-serve supermarket opened in our west London suburb in very early 60’s it caused quite a stir with the new-fangled method, and it took a while for the independent shops to be swamped by the supermarkets that sold everything, as it is now. But in all it only took 50 years for the complete revolution, and I bet Amazons new till-less concept will take less time to overtake the current shopping methods.
Now living in rural Higlands of Scotland, the retail assistants still perpetuate the ‘old-fashioned’ way of chatting pleasantly to customers even at the tills, and promoting a sense of community which is often lacking in the fast-paced hurly burly of the English conurbations I was used to.
Change happens whether we like it or not!

Member

Thanks for that Rowan. The memories are coming back. Most of us hated the way in which the supermarkets put our small shops out of business, but would we relish going back to trailing round lots of shops? As you say, change happens.

For me, an Amazon supermarket will be one more Amazon venture to boycott.

Member

I will put my hands up and admit, I prefer self-service tills. They’re quick, easy (for me) and when I’m in a rush I don’t have to start a conversation. I’m from a small town, and used to work at our local supermarket so I know everyone there and it can be a lengthy conversation.

That being said, I think a lot of people rely on checkout staff. When I worked in a supermarket I would have some really great discussions with people, and some would even say that we were the only people they spoke to all day, which absolutely breaks my heart.

I know, I need to hold myself to my own standards and use checkouts but I would be seriously disappointed if they removed checkout staff.

Member

One of the implications of this development is a reduction in the number of supermarkets. The capacity of stores to handle the number of shoppers will no longer be determined by the space required for 20+ checkouts. Even at very busy times, the aisles of supermarkets have ample capacity but the bottleneck is around the checkouts which could be significantly reduced in number if this caught on. Existing stores could probably deal with twice the current numbers of people without enlargement meaning fewer overall would be required. A consequence of that would be a need for more warehousing space on site but Amazon could no doubt develop superdrones to air-drop fresh supplies in by the pallet load [and take away the empties] at more frequent intervals.

Member
Rodney Smith says:
26 January 2018

As a checkout operator at a supermarket, i would like to say that if this new concept becomes widespread it would mean job losses, abet in the very lowest paid job market. But writing here from experience I personally would welcome it. The indifference and personal abuse metered out to myself and colleagues on a daily basis is appalling. We are expected to smile and greet customers with a friendly hello, no matter how we may be feeling ourselves. Yet in turn are met with silence, grunts or ignored all together in favour of a conversation on a mobile phone. Worse if that service is not delivered, I personally have been sworn at, threatened and subjected to abuse by customers simply because they feel they can take out their frustrations on someone who cannot fight back for fear of losing their job. So in conclusion this checkout-less system will be a opportunity for the general public to abuse one another in new and interesting ways rather then on low paid workers who, in their eyes are less then human and have no rights.

Member

A huge amount of processing power and another increase in electricity consumption just to buy a sandwich?

Yet more waste.

Member

I think I’d miss the personal interaction if this concept was to become widespread. I almost always choose to queue up at the till over using the self-service ones. And if I’m shopping at Lidl, I like the challenge of trying to pack the majority of my shopping before the cashier finishes putting the items through the scanner. I’ve never managed it. 😁