The Unstaffed Store Concept: A Challenge in Mobile Payments

August 16, 2019         By: Steven Anderson

The concept of the unstaffed store is in many ways just as familiar as it is terrifying. New reports have emerged suggesting that the unstaffed store concept is actually taking off in some places, but is far from offering worldwide appeal. The reports, featuring information from PYMNTS’ July Automated Retail Tracker study, reveal that the concept seems to hit or miss depending on how it’s used.

In the United States, for example, the concept pioneered by Amazon and its Amazon Go stores—which may see as much as 3,000 outlets open up by 2021—is being adapted for use elsewhere. Regional grocery chain Giant Eagle, for example, stepped in to start a one-location pilot program with support from Grabango. H-E-B started up its own pilot program on this front, opening up the chance for shoppers to bag their own groceries in advance and use their smartphones to both scan and pay. Meijer has done likewise under its “Shop & Scan” program.

Attempts to launch similar operations in China met largely with failure; some attributed this to the difficulties inherent in selling fresh food and produce, and others chalked it up to a loss of customer service.

In the UK, meanwhile, Tesco and Sainsbury’s are leading the way on this front. Tesco is actually approaching the point popularized by early 1990s IBM commercials, combining shelf sensors and AI systems to keep a running tab of what’s picked up and charging the customer automatically as he or she leaves. Sainsbury’s is a bit lighter on this front, emulating American shops’ attempts.

Some ask here if the cashier-less store should be shut down altogether. The Chinese are eschewing it, and in the US, some places are banning it outright. The answer to that is, of course, no. We’ve had unattended retail operations for decades; ask anyone who’s bought a Pepsi from a vending machine. The idea of unattended retail isn’t a bad one, it’s just a bad one to make the only one. There are people who don’t have mobile payment systems, and these people need accommodating too.

Unattended retail can be a valuable asset—thinning grocery store lines is welcome by itself—but it has to be enacted in concert with traditional payment systems lest some customers be left out in the cold.