What is the number one demand among retail customers? Trends, surveys, and complaints all indicate that shoppers—now more than ever—insist on a seamless shopping experience. So, what are retailers doing to make this dream a reality, and is the perfectly frictionless, autonomous store the future of retail? If so, what does this mean for the 4.6 million retail workers in the United States?
Step one in this trend towards a more seamless shopping experience involves the widespread integration of autonomous check out machines, better known as self checkout. Although the first self checkout debuted in 1957, the past few years have seen a dramatic uptick in the service’s popularity and utilization among retailers. In fact, retailers with both traditional cash registers and self checkouts see upwards of forty percent of their transaction go through self checkout, a number that has grown ten percent just in the last year!
Despite the booming popularity, autonomous registers remain a polarizing issue for both consumers and retailers. I’ve approached many customers waiting in long lines and recommended they use the available self checkouts, and about half the time I would get resistance. Sometimes I would receive a polite rejection, but many others profoundly declared their condemnation of the technology, usually resulting in a lecture criticizing me for supporting a technology that was taking jobs away from cashiers, myself included.
Autonomous tellers are controversial among groups on the retail side as well, specifically loss prevention professionals. Customers who wouldn’t think of shoplifting under the traditional retail model are emboldened by the perceived lack of supervision and security. Scams like ticket switching and stuffing suitcases with unpaid merchandise were previously easy to spot but are now much easier to pull off. Not to mention, the cameras self checkout machines typically sport generally only serve in a security theater capacity. They are often not connected to any recording source, rendering them about as useful as an expensive mirror. These factors lead to a strong correlation between self checkout utilization and inventory shortage, and that rightfully concerns loss prevention workers whose job focuses on minimizing shortage!
In December of 2016, Amazon announced it would be launching physical stores hoping to compete with brick and mortar retailers by delivering the perfectly frictionless shopping experience. Currently, there are only 11 Amazon go stores in the US, located primarily in major metropolitan areas, but the online retail giant plans on opening thousands more in the next few years. The stores use a “scan and go” technology, allowing shoppers to scan a barcode on their Amazon Go app when they walk in and—as their slogan indicates—just walk out.
These stores use hundreds of cameras and sensors to track shoppers as they browse. Items are equipped with special barcodes that cameras detect and add to the cart of customers who bag them. Depending on who you ask, these stores are perceived as the innovative future of retail or a glimpse at a dystopian surveillance state.
But how do these stores stay stocked? And who checks IDs when shoppers decide they want to pick up a six pack? Well, Amazon Go stores still rely heavily on human staff to stock shelves, provide customer service, and check IDs. It seems they have yet to discover a way to totally eradicate human interaction from trips to the store, and it doesn’t appear they plan to anytime soon.
As Amazon plans to launch more of these stores in the coming years, it is faced with some serious competition in the autonomous retail market. Standard Store and Zippin are startups in the San Francisco Bay area both opening up autonomous shops and hoping to compete with Amazon for the anti-social convenience customer. Similarly, well established chains are also exploring new technology to eliminate the hassles of a typical shopping trip. Kroger’s Scan, Bag, Go app is one of a number of smartphone apps retailers are using to eliminate wait times and train customers to be their own cashiers.
The growing popularity of autonomous stores forces us to ask the question, what are we willing to give up for the sake of convenience? In order for Amazon Go and its competitors to flourish, consumers will have to surrender their own privacy. The data Amazon collects with its in store cameras will all be stored and their services will be optimized through artificial intelligence. This gives amazon the potential to harbor the most sophisticated human recognition technology the world has ever seen. Are we happy to let a corporation amass that much power with the only tradeoff being a more convenient shopping experience?
As a society, we have already indicated we are comfortable sacrificing our privacy for the sake of convenience, but as these technologies evolve, remaining complacent grows more and more dangerous. It will be important in the coming years to demand transparency and ethical oversight in regards to the surveillance technology that makes autonomous stores possible.
Furthermore, increases in shortage as a result of the popularity of self checkout and other convenience technologies may require even more surveillance in traditional stores and potentially higher prices to offset increased losses. Either way, the chase for convenience will force consumers to make sacrifices.
Outlook for workers
The wellbeing of retail workers also comes into question regarding the ethics of pursuing a more convenient shopping experience. Retail workers represent a significant percentage of the labor force, and the idea of putting so many people out of work sends red flags to some consumers.
Thankfully, the outlook for workers in the retail industry is not as bleak as one might expect. Companies who have invested in self checkouts for their stores often reallocate the payroll intended for cashiers to other parts of the store. Adding more people to the sales floor to assist customers or help fulfill orders can further increase efficiency and help retailers come closer to achieving a frictionless shopping experience. For any cashiers reading, make sure you ask your supervisor to train in other parts of the store. This will help you pick up shifts, advance your career, and add on a layer of job security as well.
Ultimately, there is no stopping our consumer’s demand for seamless shopping experiences. Self checkouts will continue to replace traditional cashiers and autonomous stores will keep popping up. Although this doesn’t represent an existential threat to cashiers and retail workers, it is important to demand transparency and ethical oversight going forward.