Which Approach To Self-Service Grocery Checkout Will Emerge As The Standard In 2023?
Despite all the hype about instant grocery delivery during the pandemic years, people still like to go to the store themselves. But they do want a faster, more efficient shopping experience once they’re within those doors.
Although self-service checkouts were first introduced in 1986, they are still far from perfect. Many of today’s versions result in high losses. University of Leicester’s Adrian Beck, a retail finance expert, estimates that moving half or more of transactions to self-service pushes losses 77% higher. Plus, when implemented the wrong way, they only add friction to the shopping experience.
It’s annoying when you have to hunt down an employee to approve your alcohol purchase, the system claims that your total doesn’t add up, or you get the “unexpected item in bagging area” message. ShopRite’s Scan and Go app has a dismal 2.2 star rating on Google Play and 2.8 on the App Store, which says a lot about how people’s sentiment towards self-service checkouts.
But new technology could change the state of play. Emerging “computer vision” solutions use artificial intelligence that wasn’t possible in 1986, or even 2006, to identify products without requiring customers to scan barcodes. Therefore, a new generation of self-service checkout tech is able to cope more robustly than ever before with the variety of products encountered, while allowing grocery customers to pay seamlessly.
With these advances, grocery retailers can choose from a range of self-service shopping tools that promise to remove friction, keep losses down, and even boost income per cart and customer loyalty. But the number of choices brings on “analysis paralysis,” and selecting the wrong tech could be an expensive mistake.
It makes sense that grocers might not be sure which way to jump. Which approach will emerge triumphant? Here’s the rundown.
The Ceiling Camera Approach
Amazon is among the big names pioneering a network of overhead cameras, shelf sensors, and algorithms that track shoppers around the store to automatically record each item they take.
Amazon uses this Just Walk Out technology in its Amazon Go stores. EasyOut by Trigo’s version creates a digital twin of the store and uses that to track purchases. Trigo has already partnered with grocery chains including Tesco in the UK, ALDI Nord in the Netherlands, and REWE in Germany.
The big advantage to the ceiling camera method is that customers don’t have to individually scan their items, or even use a cart at all for a small purchase. They can walk through the store, select products, and walk out, knowing that payment is automatically deducted from their linked payment method. Trigo’s digital twin can be used for other purposes too, such as inventory management.
“Smart counters and smart carts have their place, but full-store frictionless checkout based on AI-powered cameras and sensors …is superior in both the experience it provides shoppers and for the efficiencies and tools it enables retailers,” Trigo CEO and co-founder Michael Gabay recently commented. “Frictionless checkout makes shopping seamless for everyone.”
However, the Amazon and Trigo tech is very expensive, both in terms of installation and maintenance. It requires extensive infrastructure and is built into the fabric of the store, so it’s not easy to try it and then swap it out if it doesn’t live up to its promise. What’s more, some customers might feel uneasy about having their whereabouts tracked on camera.
The Smart Cart Approach
As the name suggests, this approach makes the cart smart, rather than the entire store. The cart uses computer vision AI to recognize each item as the shopper adds it to the cart, no matter the angle of the product, and track the total on a running basis.
Smart cart startups in the market include Veeve, in use by Kroger and Albertsons stores; Caper, partnered with Wakefern and Canada’s Sobeys; and Shopic, used by Shufersal, Israel’s largest supermarket chain. Shopic’s solution, which is currently being rolled out in North America as well, is especially noteworthy, as the company has developed a clip-on device that can be used with any cart, instead of converting the entire cart.
Smart cart proponents point out that they are far easier and cheaper to install than wiring up an entire store, while limiting losses by automatically scanning items and offering a medium for personalized promotions. Unlike scanner apps, smart carts reduce friction by removing the need for consumers to scan by hand.
“Because our smart cart tech automatically identifies your items as you add them to your cart, you don’t have to worry about manual barcode scanning or waiting in a long line while someone else tries to complete their order,” notes Raz Golan, co-founder and CEO of Shopic.
But there are disadvantages too. Full smart carts are still very expensive to produce, costing up to $10,000 each, while standard ones cost around $100. They aren’t particularly weatherproof, and are vulnerable to theft and damage. It can also take a long time to introduce a new smart cart system, because the AI needs extensive training.
The App Approach
Self-service scanner apps are the simplest and most widely adopted method. Walmart offers Scan & Go, ShopRite has Mobile Scan, and Wegmans was using a scanner app too, until recently. Users download the app and then scan each item as they add it to their cart. When they are finished, they scan a code at the self-checkout register, the app calculates their total, and they pay.
The appeal of scanner apps is based on their low bar to adoption. Stores already have barcodes on their products, so they don’t have to change their infrastructure or train an AI model. All they need to do is create a shopping app and invite customers to use it.
But this simplicity of implementation masks major drawbacks. Shoppers don’t always want to add yet another app. Consumers often scan items incorrectly, or take advantage of the system to sneak extras out without paying. Wegmans recently discontinued its app service for just this reason, telling customers that “Unfortunately, the losses we are experiencing prevent us from continuing to make it available in its current state.” In fact, some have reported seeing the chain working with smart carts instead.
Self-Checkout Utopia Could Be On The Way
For the moment, grocery retailers need to carefully weigh up the competing merits of scanner apps, smart carts, and wired stores, considering factors like the size of the store, customer preference, and available capital. But customers can hope that in another few years, self-service grocery checkout will truly be friction-free, and shopping will be a lot more enjoyable.