London, United Kingdom – When Tom Cornall heard about the toll-free Tesco store that opened near his London office last month, he wanted to test it out.
“I tried to mislead it,” he told Al Jazeera after visiting the store the day it was launched. “I picked up some things I was not going to buy, walked around a bit, put them all back, and the system – the cameras and the sensors – they picked it all up, so they knew not to charge me. it… it was pretty cool. ”
The scenes in GetGo, Tesco’s first and only such store in High Holborn, central London, may seem futuristic, but it’s growing a reality today.
Download an application, scan a QR code to enter the store, walk through hallways full of sensors and cameras and you’ve just bought your groceries. No cash, card or human interaction is required.
These are automated shops, without cashiers, checkouts or queues of the traditional kind. They look like any other small supermarket, apart from the many cameras.
Technical behemoth Amazon has dozens of such stores under the name Amazon Go in the United States, and six in the United Kingdom.
China and South Korea are no strangers to cashless shops and parts of Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden have them too.
Now that Tesco, the UK’s largest food retailer, has jumped on board, with rival retailers in the country such as Aldi, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s obvious trials, could this be the end of the traditional UK grocery shopping experience?
Not quite, say insiders in the industry.
“These are just trials at the moment,” Richard Lim, CEO of analyst group Retail Economics, told Al Jazeera, adding that retailers are building a wealth of data to see how aggressively they need to open free stores. .
But they are unlikely to work anywhere, said Clare Bailey, an independent retailer at Retail Champion.
“It’s good for downtown where it’s fast in and out – you’re not bothered to talk to anyone,” she told Al Jazeera. “But in a big supermarket or small market, you might prefer human interaction.”
She said while it is new to customers, the technology has been in the works for the past 20 years.
“[The technology has] improve from where it was 20 years ago, of course… but this is something that could have been done a long time ago. It is only now that businesses and retailers have decided that enough buyers are willing to accept this type of technology. ”
The shift indicates a dramatic change from the usual shopping experience.
The first British supermarkets opened in the middle of the 20th century, giving people the freedom to choose their own goods from shelves, rather than relying on counter service. Later, customers could scan their items, place them in a trolley and check out at a regular checkout.
More recently, self-starting points have become ubiquitous, where people manage the entire process themselves, but are assisted by staff when needed.
And during the pandemic, many opted for click and pick up or delivery at home.
For Joshua Allerton, who owns Alleway’s, a small vegan confectionery in Birmingham, England, the latest “grab and go” model means better business everywhere.
Consumers have greater choices – they can enjoy the convenience of free point-of-sale stores, he explained, “but when they enter our store, they will want that personal experience that you will not get at this one. [automated stores]”.
At its disposable shop, which is housed in a red brick building and sells everything from chocolate to popcorn, people often need help from people – whether veteran vegans looking for new products, or people curious about veganism starting from scratch.
But Allerton said he visited an Amazon Go in London and as a consumer found it extremely convenient.
Trigo, the Israeli start-up company that provides the technology for Tesco’s GetGo, along with many more worldwide, predicts an increase in its use, especially after the pandemic.
“Despite the convenience of click and delivery, people still prefer the tangible experience of touching and smelling their groceries,” a Trigo spokesman told Al Jazeera. “The health crisis has created intense pressure to implement technologies that will do away with the lines and pressure.”
Tom Rebbeck, who recently visited Tesco’s toll-free store, described it as fairly commonplace, but expects it to be a regular convenience soon.
Except for a few small differences, it was like being at any other Tesco store, he said.
“It’s a bit like an Uber,” he told Al Jazeera, referring to the app for rides. “You know, the first time you get out of an Uber, you kind of want to pay the kind of driver and then you realize you don’t have to pay and then you get so used to it.”
“If you [go to these stores] five times the idea of going to a regular store and queuing up would seem quite painful. ”
While it is unlikely that British groceries will be fully automated any time soon, there are concerns about the effect that automation will have on the workforce.
In 2019, the UK’s Office of National Statistics (ONS) said supermarket cashier posts were the biggest danger, with 65 per cent likely to be replaced with automation.
But Lim said the industry is accustomed to change, having seen huge reductions in the workforce over the past five to 10 years as national wages rose, pushing up costs for many companies.
Bailey said the move would usher in a movement of jobs, rather than job losses – with more people needing specialized skills to install the cameras or program the sensors.
Customer-oriented roles, she said, will continue to exist, but in a different way, to help customers with any technological flaws.
Concerns about data privacy, analysts said, are unlikely to be a major issue.
Loyalty cards and schemes by grocers have been collecting public data for years, Bailey said.
“There’s a huge potential reputational damage emerging,” Lim added, referring to data privacy violations. “I do not think retailers will move in here … naively.”