Human-less stores are now possible — and it might be the end of retail

Are retailers really willing to consider disassociating from associates?

ibm self checkout machine
Credit: Sven Dowideit, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Are retailers really willing to consider disassociating from associates? I hope that's not the lesson that merchant executives take away from two recent self-checkout moves.

The first, from Amazon, was a fully self-checkout store, where items are logged as they are placed into a cart. It uses a network of cameras and motion sensors to guess when something is purchased. The flaw? There are no people to clean up the mess when the software guesses wrong. It's like the world's largest vending machine.

The second move was revealed a few days ago in Osaka, Japan, courtesy of Panasonic and the Lawson convenience chain. According to a report from The Wall Street Journal, which attended the Osaka unveiling, the reduced-associate stores are powered by an unspecified kind of electronic tag. The article didn't say whether they were RFID tags or not, but that is a likely candidate. It's item-level tagging, which is more accurate — and more expensive — than Amazon's camera approach.

The Panasonic effort adds a cute twist, though. The shopping basket has a false bottom. When the Panasonic checkout system completes it's tally (note that Amazon's approach bypasses any kind of checkout), the false bottom drops and the contents are gently placed into a bag. No bagging personnel needed.

Note: The Panasonic bagging effort is interesting, but it's not clear how it plans to deal with broken eggs and shattered lightbulbs. Typically today, if an associate breaks something at checkout, the store immediately replaces the item at no extra cost to the buyer. If the customer breaks something in the parking lot, it's tough luck for the shopper.

How is that distinction to be negotiated when the bag is machine-packed? If a shopper gets home and calls customer service and claims that a dozen eggs were destroyed, will a chain have to stomach an awful lot of free grocery items for less-than-honest shoppers? Will video at checkout be positioned so that it can peer into the bag? Even if it did, what if other grocery items block the view?

Clearly, eggs should never be at the bottom of the bag, but if the shopper placed the eggs at the bottom of the shopping basket, that is what will happen.

Those nitpicks aside, there is a much bigger issue at play here. These experiments might, theoretically, prove that a store can be managed without expensive humans. But is this desirable? I'm not talking about the contribution it would make to unemployment, although there is a reasonable argument to be made there. No, my reference is a pure retail argument. Will a human-less store sell as much?

With Amazon and other e-tailers toying more and more with grocery sales, the human factor is the friend of the in-store grocery/convenience chain, not the enemy. The fewer humans in the store, the more physical chain executives are playing into the hands of Amazon and its online ilk. A smiling associate who will check to see if there are more apples in the back room or help you find that cereal your kids are demanding is a brick-and-mortar's best weapon against the infinite cursor.

Do you really want an unassisted machine to decide whether a kid who obviously looks 13 but is using his 21-year-old brother's driver's license to buy bourbon should get served? Facial recognition is fine to make an initial determination, but you want a human to make the final call.

That's the fear. Will retail execs be wise enough to pay for systems that can run a human-less store and then limit their use? We're about to find out.

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