/ Shopping

Can a supermarket work without tills?

Grocery shopping usually ends with a visit to the checkouts and often a bit of queuing… un-till now. Are we ready for a till-less revolution? Do we need one!?

We discussed the prospect of checkout-free supermarkets back in January last year.

Now, Sainsbury’s has announced the trial of the first till-free grocery store in the UK, and I was curious to give it a try.  

Could it live up to its promises of making my shop ‘quicker’ and ‘easier’?

Self-service checkouts have been a staple in most supermarkets for years now, but going completely till-free takes things another step further. Is it a change for the better?

Abby and I set off for a trial run at the till-less store at Holborn Circus. Our race to the finish line consisted of:

🛒 Buying a small shopping list of items; apples, cashew nuts, a cold drink and some tissues

🛒 Trying two methods of payment – Abby would pay with cash at the customer service desk, I would pay with the app

🛒 Declaring the winner as the fastest to complete their shop, pay, and exit the store

We’d both enter the store with the means to pay. With cash, that was fairly straightforward. With the app? Less so.

I needed to download it, register for an account, then enable location services to find the nearest store.

Faster…. kind of

Cash was faster, despite technically there not being a till to accept it (payment was done at a customer service desk). Abby completed her shop in five minutes and 35 seconds, nearly three minutes faster than my eight minutes and 32 seconds.  

Why did my shop take longer? I’d downloaded and registered to use the app in advance, but I did not download and set up my phone to pay with Google Pay. 

This took nearly four minutes, and a bit of juggling to input my card details using my phone’s camera while holding a shopping basket.  

Abby spent approximately three minutes queuing at the customer service desk to pay, while I was able to proceed straight to scan a QR code and pay on my app.  

App-ealling or dis-app-ointing?

Using the app had one key appeal – avoiding the queue. Had I walked in fully ready to pay I would have been both faster than cash, and have avoided the one part of shopping I prefer to avoid.  

It’s also handy to see how much your spend is at all times and not worry about brandishing your wallet in unfamiliar surroundings. You can also scan and bag as you go, making a shopping basket unnecessary for a small shop.

However, I can’t see this working for everyone and, at times, not working for me.

There’s a large technology chain involved to make this shop ‘easy’, including a phone, access to mobile data or WiFi, and being open to sharing your location data. Not everyone will be able to access these resources, or may want to keep their data more private.

My key takeaway is that ‘faster’ and ‘convenient’ are best defined by the shopper. For me that’s less about how I pay, and more about whatever method of payment has the fastest queue.

How do you normally pay for groceries at the supermarket?
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So how would you feel if your local supermarket completely ditched the checkouts and switched to an app? Could you get on board, or would you prefer a more personable shopping experience? Should we resist changes like this, or are they the future?


Shoplifters have been managing without tills for decades 😉

Yes, that is exactly the point. Shoplifting is not dependent on whether or not honest shoppers have to use a till or not. Those who steal from shops will continue to do so, tills or no tills.

Isn`t life complicated enough without adding to it!.

I have noticed at the self-service checkout increasingly, a supermarket human overseeing the tech savvie people at the machines, something I haven’t yet tried as I still prefer the human contact and approach. I let the robots at the Ocado sorting depos find my groceries for me these days and have it delivered to my door, not yet by a robot I hasten to add!.

Its worth paying a little extra for this service as you save on petrol and are less likely to be contaminated by all the viruses floating around in supermarkets during the winter months. I have been tempted to wear a surgical mask when shopping as they do in Japan, but I am afraid I may be mistaken for a terrorist and end up in the local police cell, and would probably feel the same if I exited a supermarket without paying at the checkout!

I am another Ocado fan Beryl. On cleanliness, I have noticed the bottom of the bins are rather dirty, so I no longer reuse the carrier bags.

More seriously though, I do wonder how much tolerance the supermarkets have for either dishonesty or incompetence when customers use the available self-scanning options. I’ve never used any of those myself, but I do quite often use self-service tills, especially when I only have a few items to buy.

I can also see distinct disadvantages for any form of shopping that requires the possession of a working smartphone. I’m the many W?C posters who don’t even want to pay by contactless cards may have something to say about this.

We did wonder about the honesty of people as well. I am guessing they will be very carefully tracking stock to get an idea of how many items were not paid for.

In the two minutes I spent chatting with staff they mentioned that there is a Sainsburys with regular tills just across the road about three times. I can imagine that one will be busier these days!

Watch prices rise to compensate for theft!!!

I wonder how many people know whether their smartphones have sufficient security installed to carry out financial transactions?

I am extremely confident that the internet security installed on my home computer makes it as safe as it can be when doing any financial transactions.

I have absolutely no confidence in the security of my smartphone, so don’t use it for anything that involves money.

My smartphone is often needed to assist with the authentication of financial transactions on a PC.

It follows that attempting to directly use the smartphone for those transactions would then remove a useful layer of security.

I’ve also managed to set up my digital life so that I now have a machine that is almost exclusively reserved for financial transactions and nothing else.

I don’t have a problem with being sent authentication codes on my smartphone to confirm payments which up until now have been on my PC, but that is it until I can know for certain my phone is secure.

A few months ago, I had to leave and find another car park as the only method of payment was via a phone app.

My fear of till-free shopping is finding myself branded a shoplifter for making an honest mistake.

I once tried out the self-scanning at Waitrose where you pick an item from the shelf, scan it and put it in your trolley for a fast check-out. I would forget to scan items, scan something then change my mind, put it back and scan something else, forget to scan……..

I put my shopping through the manned checkout and my total was nothing like the till total.

I am happy to use the self-checkouts for a small shop as that is all space allows, but if my only option is a till-free, I will find somewhere else to shop or do without.

Likewise, Alfa. I have every confidence I could use a self serve checkout but I never do because I wish to speak to the assistant and often wish to get cash back. Supermarkets without tills means apps and accounts and that ties one to a particular shop unless one app fits all shops. In any case, like Alfa, I might change my mind about something and then have to unscan it and deduct it from the list. Carrying a basket is a one handed job, and with the scanner in the other I have no hand left to get things from the shelves. There’s making a list mode, shopping mode, paying mode and unpacking mode. They all follow each other nicely. Who needs a scanner to confuse modes and make the shopping mode more difficult to do? As everyone knows, we don’t like multi-tasking. I know queues are a nuisance but there’s always a smile at the end and a chat with a regular. Ask Rachel, she loves it when I come by! She hides her wheelchair under the counter, but you wouldn’t know it when she is sitting up and helping us all.

I am one of those people who like a chat with the assistant. You can also keep a closer eye on any kids you have with you when you aren’t trying to scan things.

When my son was younger I took him shopping when he was in the buggy. I went through the self serve checkout and had to turn my back on him to call the assistant over. Half way home he poked his head around the side of the buggy and proudly handed me a flapjack and told me it was a present. The assistant was so amused when we appeared back with it! He was so upset about me taking his present back that I ended up buying it. 😀

The shop that needs this more than any other is Primark. If you visit a London branch on a Saturday afternoon, the queue to pay can be hundreds long, despite dozens of tills. Faced with this, we walk out without buying what we wanted, and so do many other customers (and I suspect that some equally walk out without paying). If one could scan the items’ barcodes with an app in order to pay, it would increase sales.

Self-service checkouts are not the answer, because there would still be insufficient checkouts for the number of concurrent customers.

I’ll always remember my biology teacher explaining how enzymes work with a check out analogy.

I actually don’t mind long queues as it makes me really think about if I need the thing I am buying! 😉

Interestingly, there’s a Waitrose near Bangor that doesn’t use tills – or checkouts. You have to pre-register but once that’s done you simply pick up a scanner when you enter, scan your Waitrose card, then do your shopping. You scan each item yourself and, once you’re finished, simply go to the screens at the exit, pay with your card, and leave. There are human staff watching, but otherwise you’re completely free of staff intervention.

First time we used it – a couple of years ago – we both thought it a licence to steal, but I assume it works reasonably well, as it’s still going.

That’s interesting – There has been so much coverage about this trail but I don’t think I heard anything about the one in Bangor.

Technology is being allowed to take over, putting profit before people, and soon there will be no face-to-face human interaction for anything. Is this really the kind of world people want? Social media has a lot to answer for. Count me out.

We are essentially a social species and need connection with other humans to survive. To understand why log onto
en.wikipedia.org – Social Connection

The more people I meet, the more I love my dog!

When self-service tills were introduced I avoided them because there were so many problems, but these have been addressed. I regularly use these tills for a few items, encouraged by queues at the remaining staffed tills.

I am familiar with the racks of scanning devices available in some supermarkets but have yet to try them. I expect that we will be gradually pushed to use whatever the shops want us to use, if only because the traditional alternatives are gradually made a little more difficult. Resistance is useless…..

I usually don’t mind using self serve for a few items but recently M&S have had a promotion with Ant and Dec. Having them shout at me to scan my sparks card really put me off! 😀

I haven’t used M&S self serve for a while, and I can’t remember how it worked now, but however they ask you about plastic bags is the opposite of other supermarkets so they manage to charge you for not taking their bags.

They have fixed that one. What they haven’t changed is the weird upside down order of the numbers of items in the look up area. I have lost count the number of times I have nearly paid for 7 rather than 1 bakery or fruit item! The person on the tills always reassures me I am not the only one who gets caught out!

Brenda says:
11 May 2019

I use subscription coupons for newspapers and even the staff struggle with these on machines. I always go to a manned till next

I can use self-service tills easily but prefer not to, as I enjoy my chat with the checkout person. I always look out for my favourites and I think it makes their job less boring if someone bothers to treat them as a friendly face. I will never use my smartphone for financial transactions , like Alfa, I feel their security is not reliable.

ekstrom says:
11 May 2019

I am pretty tech savvy and i always have some kind of issue and all i see when there are no retailer staff around are delays !! alcohol has to be approved or you cant progress with shopping, i stood behind a guy trying to pay with a smart phone for 10-15 minutes !! if it isnt broken dont fix it ? we need to keep people employed in the UK and not pander to the younger generation who do everythiing from a phone and are constantly looking at them and bumping in to people and standing frozen to the spot because they recieved a facebook message.

If it means using google it’s definitely a no no. They spy on us enough.

Interestingly, that is a point that either hasn’t been noticed or doesn’t seem to bother the majority of commenters here.

Anyone who carries a mobile phone can easily have their movements tracked and anyone who carries a smartphone may also have much of their activity tracked too.

I’m guilty of doing both the above, but I cannot help wondering if, like turkeys voting for Christmas, we’ve all just quietly voted ourselves into a 1984-style surveillance society.

We’ve had extensive CCTV for surveillance in public places for years. From at least 20 years before 1984. I’ve nothing to hide and it has been instrumental in dealing with crime and security.


Heavy apps users probably have a lot more, but I have just checked my app permissions and 4 out of 27 track my ‘Location’.

Alexa, Cortana, apps, thought police, 1984-style, scary when you think about it isn’t it.

How long before a loud voice apprehends you at the exit and announces you haven’t paid for an item or warns you not to buy the cake you are looking at.

The ‘I’ve got nothing to hide’ argument has been used extensively by those wishing to extend the snooping power of government. Which in itself should give pause for thought.

The problem is – as with almost any innovation – potential abuse by miscreants. It’s very simple to believe if we – as individuals – have nothing to hide, everything in the garden will be fine. After all, we know the Police have never charged or prosecuted anyone who was innocent, have they?

But there are other aspects to mass surveillance. Amnesty has identified five issues:

1. Mass surveillance treats us all like criminals
2. Mass surveillance doesn’t help catch terrorists
3. Mass surveillance does away with fundamental rights
4. Mass surveillance can be used to control what we do
5. Mass surveillance threatens free speech online

I suspect that, like most things, there is a happy medium here. If CCTV helps keep town centres crime free then why not use it even if I am caught with a melting ice cream on a town bench and someone in the office laughs. I am less keen on being tracked by GPS and mobile phone, but here again, if this is only called upon as evidence when needed and not accessed otherwise, it may be helpful to establish what happened and when it happened.
Where it becomes intrusive, is, as has been suggested above, when it is used to actively control or regulate our daily lives. Targeted advertising gets close to this when shops examine what we do and buy within them.
There is a difference between recording who comes to visit us and where we visit, and looking specifically at where suspected criminals visit and who goes to see them. The same technique needs to be in place for both, it is how it is used that matters. Likewise if algorithms are used to identify key words and phrases that might be used in terrorist activity or by criminals it might be right for those using surveillance to latch on to those and investigate further. If, however this was used to criticize what I am writing here or elsewhere, then it is a gross misuse of the technology. You can criticize by all means – that’s different. We live now with the ability to reach out easily in many ways and influence others by what we say and report. There are also, now, many more ways of keeping track of what we do. If these things are used constructively, then we need to be less paranoid about personal freedom. If they are leading towards a “1984” society then we need to resist and fight this with the same paranoia.

The AI facial recognition issue in the Met has resurfaced, but more worryingly Aleksander Madry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his colleagues have discovered that the problem with AI image recognition is more fundamental – adversarial examples seem to arise from features in images that we can’t perceive, but machines can.

“Madry and his colleagues appear to have confirmed a long-held suspicion that AIs do not view images in a similar way to humans. Rather than solely relying on details like ear shape or nose length to classify images of animals, say, they use features that are imperceptible to humans.”

“We don’t actually know what these features are — they may be big, or small — but the human brain doesn’t pick up on them,” says Madry.”

This has worrying implications.

An image is an image. I know who I am, they know who I am???
If AI is used to try and discover how I’m feeling, then I am worried.

Someone needs to programme AI in the first place, so they need to identify what they want to know and how AI will find it.

Actual Vynor, if you program something like an artifical neural network, then the AI can be directed to learn how to find these these. This is sometimes known as “machine learning”. More details are shown here:



Gordon wallace says:
11 May 2019

A lot of older and disabled people don’t have smart phones and prefer to use a manned till
My local Asda used to have 20 manned tills now it has 1 ,I use a mobility scooter and if there was
no manned tills I would shop elsewhere (profit before customer’s).

I do not, ever, use automatic checkouts, because:

a. They do people out of shift-based jobs that are often badly needed to make ends meet.

b. I have yet to observe an automatic checkout where someone didn’t need assistance from a staff member.

c. If we accept them, that’s all we’ll end up with.

d. I spend enough time dealing with recalcitrant machines in my daily life to want to add this experience to my shopping trips.

Till-less shops are just one step further. Plus, I am one of the very few adult males in the Western Hemisphere who does not and has not ever owned a smartphone. I have worked in software all my life, and the thought of the effort and knowledge that would be required to make one fully secure for financial transactions fills me with the utmost weariness. There are a lot of very, very clever bad guys out there.

At the end of the day are Supermarkets trying to lose customers for themselves. I think it going to be quite a few years before customers would accept this method of shopping then what about people who are not IT literate????

We’ve used self scan at Tesco and Asda and it would only take about 30 seconds more than phone scanning and payment so no need for further technology. There is also the beauty of perfectly packed bags where you have separated the various purchases. This is something Lidl and Aldi could learn from as there are never enough checkouts manned and when you do get to the till the items are thrown through with nowhere to pack bags.

Next they’ll want us to stack the shelves for them too!

I much prefer to keep people in jobs with all the benefits to society that brings.

Gillian, I fear you’re almost right there. Actually, sooner or later, we’ll probably see robots helping to stack the shelves. I expect that, upstream of the supermarket sales floor, much of the logistics and supply chain is already highly automated.

Lana Joyce says:
11 May 2019

Every self service machine is another lost job. Refuse to use them.

That’s a very weak argument. If you believe in that, then do you also believe in employing lift attendants, petrol pump attendants, bank clerks instead of cash machines and drivers on the Docklands Light Railway?

Humans should be employed for their brains, not wasted on inefficient tasks that mimic what a machine can do. As technology progresses, humans can be used for creative and intelligent tasks instead of simulating a machine.

NFH – Open your eyes, the evidence is all around you. Obesity is commonplace wherever you travel nowadays. People are eating and drinking too many calories and not burning them off through lack of exercise. We drive around in cars instead of walking, machines wash our clothes and our dishes and we and our children are spending more of our free time watching TV and sitting at computers, which maybe exercising our brains at the expense of our bodies that are living machines that need to be kept moving in order to prevent them from seizing up or developing osteoarthritis and other painful joint problems, heart disease and/or certain cancers.

The super intelligent brain ought to be reminding us that its very survival is dependent upon the health of the body it inhabits. Technology has its place in todays society but the creative and intelligent brain needs to ask itself, where are we heading and are we capable of restricting the speed at which it is progressing and what are the risks if it is unable to do so?

I fully agree Beryl. For most of my working life I had a “brain job” but I took every opportunity to get out an about and directly involved in physical work. Home also provided physical exercise – the garden, renovating the house. And of course children give you exercise.

Many people relish physical jobs rather than sitting at a desk.

I understand the wish to save money by automating physical jobs – I was amazed at the Ocado warehouse run totally by robots (one of whom burned it down). But i do think we need to keep as many people occupied in work as possible, so replacing them with robots is not always the best for society. I see Uber cars is heading for driverless taxis, eliminating the most expensive outlay, the driver. What happens to all this people made idle?

But your point about the obesity problem is quite right. It would be greatly helped if everyone, particularly children, got off their bottoms and exercised their bodies. Perhaps banning cars in towns might get people onto bikes?