June 25, 2021

Turn the clock back just a few decades and supermarkets still had staff members equipped with price guns applying stickers to almost each and every item in the store.

And when customers arrived at the till to pay, the man or woman at the checkout would have to type in every price before the customer paid – by cash or cheque. Tills where items were scanned by a staff member, let alone self-checkout tills, were still something for the future.

In the latest demonstration of how supermarket technology has moved forward at lightning pace, Tesco, the UK supermarket group, has announced that it is following the example of Amazon by opening a checkout-free store.

The location of the forthcoming outlet has yet to be revealed, but it is likely to be just the first of many introduced by Tesco, which announced a drop in profits in April.

Myriad other retailers across the globe are bringing in similar technology as a way of reducing costs and streamlining the experience for shoppers.

In a statement released to media, Ken Murphy, Tesco’s chief executive, indicated that there might be teething problems in the introduction of the new technology.

“It’s leading-edge technology but it is a learning curve. It will be a while before it is ready to roll out,” he said.
It is well over a decade since Tesco, and many other British supermarkets, introduced self-checkout tills in many of its stores.

Scan as you shop

For several years the company has, at some stores, also offered a “Scan as you Shop” system, in which customers use a specialised handset to scan items as they carry out their shop.

They can put their shopping into bags as they go along and at the end they scan a barcode on a till, pay and leave the store without having to unpack the goods.

The new store will take things a step further and offer what has been described as a fully frictionless form of shopping, with cameras and sensors determining what items customers have chosen. Machine learning is a key part of the process.

Tesco has already been trialling the technology at a small outlet at its headquarters in Welwyn Garden City, a town north of London.

“We have a system installed in our Express store in Welwyn Garden City, and we’ll extend that to another store in the coming weeks and months to check it in a more urban environment,” Murphy told media.

“It’s been opened about a year now, and it’s working really well. One of the joys of machine learning is it is continuously improving, so we’re feeling confident that we can put it into another store with a higher traffic.”

Amazon Fresh

Highly advanced, the process is similar that employed at a store that Amazon opened earlier this year in Ealing in London.

Tesco’s new checkout-free stores will offer similar technology to London’s Amazon Fresh outlet.

At this Amazon Fresh outlet, customers have only to scan a QR code on entering using the Amazon app, with – as at the Tesco store – sensors, cameras and artificial intelligence determining which items have been selected.

Amazon plans to launch more stores using the “Just Walk Out” technology in London, but it has already opened at least 20 similar outlets in the United States, although these are branded Amazon Go rather than Amazon Fresh.

While the technology was going to move ahead in any case, the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the transition towards more seamless forms of shopping.

Speaking earlier this year, Josep Alvarez, UK head of banking practice for NTT Data, an IT company, described the pandemic as “an unprecedented moment for tech-driven forms of payment”, whether they be e-commerce to contactless payments.

“The QR code, as part of [the] Amazon Fresh technology platform, has emerged from relative obscurity during the pandemic and become a genuinely viable way for businesses to support a seamless, convenient way to pay,” he said.

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