With cashier-less checkout, retailers should be careful what they wish for

As the battle for cashier-less stores rages on, it's worth questioning whether an employee-less checkout system is something that retailers should truly want.

As the battle for cashier-less stores rages on — with Amazon Go's one-store trial pushing Microsoft and Walmart to explore a mobile cart-based system to ditch associates at checkout — it's worth questioning whether an employee-less checkout system is something that retailers should truly want. Fully cashier-less efforts should fall into the "be careful what you wish for" category.

The challengers for cashier-less checkout are not solely technological, although the tech hurdles are substantial. Anyone remember JCPenney's failed effort to fuel cashier-less checkout via RFID?

The real issue is trusting any one system too much. That's both an IT issue as well as a consumer/shopper issue. Retailers first must convince shoppers/consumers that the system is trustworthy enough for them to try it. Consider when Apple first rolled out its checkout-by-app tactic and then promptly had a customer who tried it only to be incorrectly arrested and jailed overnight. What message did that send other customers who were considering trying it, too?

There have been plenty of examples of driverless cars having accidents, sometimes deadly ones. What message does that send to potential drivers? This column looked last month at the Amazon Echo privacy nightmare when the software made some autonomous decisions and recorded — and transmitted — a family's private conversation to a co-worker.

Let's get back to cashier-less stores. Why not take a page from self-checkout deployments, which similarly struggled with the fear of falsely accusing loyal customers of shoplifting? Stores would typically assign an associate to stand by and cover as many as a half-dozen self-checkout units. That way, the store realized a dramatic reduction in associate checkout costs, but it left a human failsafe in the system. If anything looked wrong, a human was summoned to investigate.

In the non-associate checkout efforts being pursued by both Amazon and Walmart/Microsoft, all that they would need do is add one associate at an exit. That way, if a shopper has a dispute ("My phone says that I bought shampoo, but I merely looked at it and replaced it on the shelf. Somehow, the system missed that. Please look in my cart and search me if you must, but delete this item from my list so I'm not charged"), it can be resolved by a human before the shopper leaves the store. Once shoppers leave and call from home, their ability to prove that they didn't make a purchase is far weaker. I also doubt customer service will routinely check store video on a mischarged $3 purchase. Customer service (at least for Amazon) will more likely just credit the item.

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