Retail in the age of automation: could we say farewell to queues?


Josh Cottell, Journalist

When was the last time you didn’t scan your own food shopping? For the majority of you, it was probably a while ago. But how else could automation change retail?

Automation has transformed our shopping experiences. Where once we had our items scanned, bags packed, and payment taken by a person, we increasingly scan our own items, pack our own bags, and pay without exchanging any money.

Automation looks set to continue shaping the way we shop by transforming, or even removing, the checkout process.

automation shopping barclaycard

The future of shopping? A customer scans items as she shops using an app. Source: Barclaycard.


In the last decade, the biggest change to the way we shop has been the proliferation of self-checkout machines. First being used in stores in the 1990s, self-checkout machines have increased hugely in number. By 2013, there were over 200,000 in stores over the world and this is set to double by 2022.

Customers’ attitudes towards self-checkouts appear to be mixed. Many people value the time they can save, and some enjoy being able to make discreet purchases without embarrassment or just the freedom to not have hit pause on that podcast. But others miss the human interaction, and find the machines frustrating to use. Just this week, a survey of older people found that automated checkout machines put off about a quarter from going shopping.

The technology has improved significantly over the past decade, with machines becoming easier to use and crashing less. But some issues remain.

Slow checkouts

Self-checkouts are especially inefficient when it comes to buying restricted items, like alcohol or security packaged items. ‘Please wait for assistance’ is now an infuriating phrase engraved in the minds of most shoppers.

automation face recognition yogi

Using a facial recognition app to purchase restricted items. Source: Yoti.

But a new facial recognition app from British start-up Yoti could provide a solution.

Rather than waiting for a shop assistant to come and check your ID – assuming you haven’t left your wallet in the car – you could simply take a selfie to verify your identity. Once verified, the app uses a paired document such as a passport to approve your transaction if you’re over 18, or reject it if you’re not.

Two supermarkets have won approval to trial the system in 2018. The app could also be used outside of retail, wherever you need to verify your age or identity, such as pubs, or even dating sites.

No checkouts

Paying has become quicker and easier with the advent of contactless cards and phone pay apps. One shop even allows you to pay by scanning your finger at the checkout. But even with these and breakthroughs such as Yoti’s facial recognition app, queues remain.

Checkouts could disappear completely, taking queues with them.

Some supermarket chains are hoping to fix this problem by doing away with the idea of checkouts completely. One such solution is being pioneered by Amazon with their Just Walk Out Technology, which uses sensors and an app to figure out what you’ve put in your basket as you walk around the shop and charge you for it as you leave.

While the opening of their first Amazon Go store for customers has been postponed, there are signs that it could be opening soon.

automation shopping amazon

Walk in, grab your groceries, and walk out. Amazon’s concept of shopping without checking out. Source: Amazon.

Another approach also uses an app on your smart phone. But you still need to scan items, doing so on your phone as you walk around and paying via the app when you exit the shop. Requiring less sophisticated technology, this method may be quicker to take root among retailers.

Major UK supermarket chains like M&S and Sainsbury’s have already experimented with the technology, and Barclaycard have trialled their own app at their Canary Wharf headquarters. If the problem of identifying shop lifters without checking everyone’s virtual receipt can be overcome, these apps may quickly become available across the UK. Checkouts could disappear altogether, taking queues with them.

Our desire for time saving and retailers’ desire for efficiency have led to an increasingly automated shopping experience. These changes haven’t been uniformly popular, and retailers need to make sure that options remain for those of us who would rather speak to a person than a machine. But for better or worse, there’s change yet to come.

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