Coronavirus is forcing checkout-free retail out of the lab

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Checkout-free stores would seem to be the perfect fit for germaphobic shoppers during the coronavirus pandemic, but until now the model has been mostly experimental.

The poster child for this concept is Amazon Go, which lets shoppers walk out of stores without stopping to pay for anything they've picked up. The transaction is handled almost invisibly; shoppers identify themselves via an app at the start of the process, and are then tracked by cameras and sensors as they navigate the store.

Since Amazon launched these stores, dozens of companies have developed competing technology, mostly to sell brick-and-mortar retail on how an almost invisible checkout process can provide them with valuable data on their customers. But outside of Asia, there’s not been a huge rush to retrofit stores in the U.S. or Europe. Amazon Go, for example, has slightly more than a dozen locations — thousands less than the reported goal of opening 3,000 by 2021.

Before the coronavirus hit, most of the development of checkout-free technology was focused on making it work in larger locations than the convenience store setup that Amazon pioneered. The coronavirus has added another variable, as the “just walk out” idea removes physical points of sale, plastic cards and self-service kiosks — all parts of the store where people are likely to congregate in close quarters. The next step for checkout-free technology — applying it to existing stores — has become a short-term challenge rather than a long-range vision.

“Checkout-free shopping should take off post COVID-19, as it can reduce interactions at checkout, which is safer for both the customer and the sales associate, particularly if it is in an everyday purchase environment like a supermarket or drug store,” said Thad Peterson, a senior analyst at Aite Group. “The confined environment may create social distancing issues, particularly if there is no one available to monitor the situation in-store.”

Standard Cognition, one of the firms pursuing checkout-free retail, is focusing on delivering the technology to retail locations in high- density areas, which have more foot traffic per square foot, said Jordan Fisher, the company's co-founder and CEO.

“There are essential retailers of all sizes, from convenience stores to small grocers to hyper stores,” Fisher said. “The autonomous checkout industry isn’t ready to tackle the hyper-store segment … eventually we will serve all verticals.”

Standard Cognition this week acquired Milan-based Checkout Technologies, which uses artificial intelligence to build point of sale systems. It’s also acquired firms to build out its technology stack, including Explorer.ai to add robotic mapping.

AI models connect the computer vision images to provide retailers with critical information such as which shoppers have which items, how shoppers are moving in the store, and inventory levels, Fisher said. “Checkout Technologies in particular has complementary technology for improved classification of small products and visually similar items in stores.”

Checkout-free technology was part of an early coronavirus response, with AiFi opening locations in Shanghai as the virus spread in China. The store attracted users, and beyond early supply chain issues, performed well.

“It reduces the need to interact. You just walk in and walk out,” said Liu Yang, a spokesperson for AiFi, adding the firm is adding an alert-based social distancing feature to its autonomous store technology that tracks crowds in stores to manage crowding with exceptions for family members.

Standard Cognition has signed contracts with several retailers in North America and Europe, with expected deployment at the new Worcester Red Sox ballpark in 2021. It did not identify other new deployments, saying they were forthcoming.

“The level of demand we are seeing right now, we hadn’t expected until 2022. This pandemic is a catalyst for adopting touchless solutions that improve the safety of both shoppers and store staff,” Fisher said.

The coronavirus has sparked adoption of digital payments in several ways. E-commerce and card not present transactions have soared, and contactless payments have also picked up steam after slowly expanding the previous years.

Advocates for checkout-free stores like Fisher contend the model allows the transaction to disappear, as well as provide insight into inventory that can inform stocking for both in-store and online ordering strategies.

“Current contactless systems deliver just a small part of the transformation we see occurring in physical retail,” Fisher said. “Autonomous checkout is built on a platform that radically enhances all aspects of a physical store.”

Due to the crisis, consumers will have an increased acceptance of general touchless checkout experiences, said Krista Tedder, head of payments for Javelin Strategy & Research.

"Multiple checkout experiences will expand as businesses and consumers look to reduce physical touch," Tedder said.

“A glimpse of East Asian countries who have experienced coronaviruses previously is an indication of where commerce might shift,” Tedder said. QR codes, facial recognition, mobile app check-ins, and self-scanning technology — what used to seem like “big brother” technology — will be normalized, according to Tedder.

But it won’t be as easy as simply eliminating points of contact. At the same time there is a need to reduce physical contact and streamline consumer interactions, “the coronavirus has highlighted a deep need within consumers to feel and have meaningful interactions,” Tedder said.

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