/ Shopping

Would in-store robots get you back on the high-street?

Alongside the perspex screens and hand sanitiser stations, major retailers are launching innovations to tempt us away from online shopping. Will they work?

You don’t expect to meet R2-D2 in the cereal aisle, but in certain Asda stores you may well come face to face with a fully automated robot cleaner that wouldn’t look out of place in a galaxy far, far away.

The UK supermarket is reportedly trialling AI cleaning robots in a bid to prove its cleanliness credentials. And it’s not the only retailer innovating in the COVID era. 

Read all the latest COVID-19 news and advice on our dedicated hub

In-store innovations

With coronavirus spreading more easily inside than outside, Selfridges has set up an outdoor market behind its store. 

M&S has launched a new-format outlet in Nottingham which it calls ‘fit for the new world’. It doesn’t have robots, but it does have wi-fi and will be ‘seamlessly integrated’ with its checkout-free Mobile Pay Go app. 

Speaking of checkout-free, Amazon is making the move to offline shopping, reportedly planning to open 30 stores in the UK, none of which will require you to pay at a till – you’ll simply be charged for whatever’s in your bag as you exit.

And then there’s John Lewis, which has proposed everything from stocking second-hand goods to transforming its stores into homes for affordable rent. 

Sainsbury’s is also trialling a virtual queuing system.

The end of the high street?

Experts were predicting the ‘death of the high street’ long before COVID-19, but the pandemic has really accelerated things. Thousands of jobs have been lost, and household name shops have been shuttered. 

Online shopping, on the other hand, is thriving, accounting for 40% of sales according to analysts KPMG. 

These offline innovations show there’s life in the high street yet, but will they make a difference?

Will flashy tactics get you reaching for your shopping mask, or would you rather shop online until it’s safer?

Would these latest innovations convince you to shop in-store?
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Had you already switched to online shopping before the pandemic?

Let us know in the comments


We will continue to shop from home for now but hope the shops will still be there when we eventually venture into them again.

I have tried to buy several things online recently but they have only been available in-store. Do stores think this will get us to go into their stores instead of shopping online? They need to think again as we look elsewhere online and they lose a sale.

The big problem with automation is that people lose their jobs – jobs that are in short supply at the moment.

I will be interested to see the format Amazon takes. Part of the experience of shopping in store is to handle goods and get advice from staff. Naturally the stock will be limited unless it is electronically displayed. In that case I am better off in front of my own computer at home. QVC has/had? a shop in Shrewsbury for returns and surplus goods. This used to be quite a gold mine for Christmas shopping depending on what was available. The craft section was especially good. In later years that disappeared and there has been less on offer. Some, too, is damaged and in one case the box was missing part of the contents, so I needed to be careful when buying things there. The High Street has shrunk and many big names have gone. This means having less choice if one shop doesn’t stock what I need. I still prefer to go out and shop and regard on line shopping as a lazy option. Choice is the main reason for doing it. I’m not convinced that I save much money when shopping at home and it is easier to make a bad purchase if done in a hurry without research. In a shop that research is done with hands and eyes as well as reading up before hand.

On-line shopping is good [or bad?] for impulse buying but shopping in store is best for considered purchases. But on-line is unmatched for comparison shopping, especially since few high streets have a good range of outlets nowadays and you have to navigate the ring roads to find much choice. We are very conveniently situated close to a John Lewis store so we tend to choose things on-line then go into the store [if they sell what we have selected] to ask any questions and place the order.

I sense that things will stabilise on the high street because people will continue to want to consider alternatives, see what they are buying, get it today, and not have all the faff of waiting for deliveries. Moreover, every time another major store or chain goes under, the remaining stores will be stronger – provided, that is, that the management have the acumen to keep closely in touch with what the market requires, note the prices people can afford, and can get the merchandise on the rails. M&S’s failure to capitalise on the collapse of BHS because they were just not commercially agile enough is a lesson from recent history. Up popped a handful of on-line only sellers who stole the custom but gave us unsustainable ‘fast fashion’ in return.

Anyway, getting back to the question on the table, no amount of “flashy tactics” or silly gimmicks will get me back in a store at the moment. While we have sufficient stocks of most requirements in all domestic departments, and can get products we know on-line without much difficulty, there is no need to go into a store.

We went to the seaside yesterday and, for the first time for ages, I had to open my wallet to buy lunch; it seemed quite strange. We didn’t take advantage of the Chancellor’s “eat out to help out” discount scheme so were able to find an outdoor table at a nice café on the esplanade without queues and with no noisy holidaymakers.

interesting comments John! While not sharing your reluctance to go out and shop (if I need anything, which seems less often these days) I agree with everything you have said. I love your closing remarks. If there were two of me I would do the same.

Margaret says:
26 August 2020

I normally did proper shopping before covid19 ,but lockdown stopped that.My daughter went food shopping for me which was better than trying food shops on line as their substitutions were not desireable.I started shopping on line for clothes &home items which was fine but it was so easy to overspend & buy several items rather than just the one that I needed. There were frequent returns which meant posting ,tracking & delays in repayment bcause the pictures of some items looked better than the items I received.so all in all I want to get back to ‘proper’ shops to see stuff first hand & be able to feel & try on the goods when this pandemic is over .

It could be a long long time before the pandemic is over but I am hoping the the epidemic affecting the UK will clear before too long and we can start to do proper shopping again – if there are any proper shops left, that is.

For the time being I will continue to shop online, using Morrisons, Tesco and Waitrose. The main problem is that goods are often out of stock online. I now stagger my orders with a friend. We ask each other to order items, which means we don’t have to shop as frequently. Bread flour remains a problem but thanks to the friend’s neighbour who is happy to go into supermarkets, I have not run out.

I am not keen on shopping online unless I have a good idea of what I am buying and it means uncertainty about delivery, possibly having to stay in all day. Like Vynor I don’t buy as much as I used to.

What might entice me to visit the high street is a click & collect system that does not require me to enter the store. Some of the supermarkets seem to do this well.

I am not too worried about staying at home all day because that has become our normal state over the last few months.

For food deliveries, Sainsbury’s give very reliable time slot options and, so far, they have all been within ten minutes of the beginning of the slot and occasionally a few minutes early.

Non-food deliveries are more unpredictable and some carriers arrive a day or two earlier than the estimated date of delivery but they usually leave the box on the doorstep or in a safe place if there is no answer – we might be in the back garden or walking the dog – and there have been no problems.

The Royal Mail won’t leave parcels unattended but they have an easy and reliable re-delivery process or we can collect it from the sorting office; of the other carriers, only one seems to offer an automatic redelivery service [but I can’t remember whether it is Hermes or Yodel].

One unsatisfactory aspect of the current delivery pressures is that it is often impossible to see which carrier is involved as they mostly seem to have unmarked or hired vans, wear no uniform, and have no identification on the parcel label or the delivery note inside it. I had to speak to a company the other day about the inadequate packaging and poor condition of a recent consignment which had obviously been tossed and tumbled on its journey through several hubs and depots and arrived in a very sorry state. Fortunately the contents were not damaged, just a bit disarranged, but the supplier would not disclose who they had used for the delivery.

I prefer to use click & collect because it gets me out of the house. Our local-ish Waitrose expects customers to go into the store for collections so I book a delivery. They are losing business. In the introduction we are told of various innovations but it’s about time that Waitrose caught up with the rest. Maybe other branches are better organised.

We deserve to be told which carrier a company plans to use at the time of placing an order, John. Some companies use more than one carrier, which may be the reason they do not specify.

I have been shopping online for a long time, well before the pandemic, but only for some items, food and household staples and clothes were I know what I want, or am very pushed for time to shop. There are many things I prefer to buy in the shops and indeed I enjoy going to the shops and looking around – it broadens the shopping horizons and gives me new ideas. And seeing some things before you buy them is essential, household technology of any kind for example.

I have been shopping online for a long time, well before the pandemic, but only for some items, food and household staples and clothes were I know what I want, or am very pushed for time to shop. There are many things I prefer to buy in the shops and indeed I enjoy going to the shops and looking around – it broadens the shopping horizons and gives me new ideas. And seeing some things before you buy them is essential, household technology of any kind for example.