I find it odd when checkout-free retail is said to represent a loss in customer service.
In my opinion, the cash register was never an ideal setting for customer service in the first place. It’s the point in the journey when a person is finished shopping and ready to leave. The only reason it’s treated as a podium for dispensing customer service is because there have historically been few alternatives.
To be fair, I do enjoy conversing with the cashiers at grocers like Trader Joe’s or Fresh Thyme. They hire great people, and it takes time to scan a cart or basket full of groceries. I may as well make small talk while I’m standing there.
Convenience stores are different, as small basket sizes and hurried customers leave precious few moments for interaction. If any scripts, loyalty program pitches or questions about receipts are added to the mix, there may not even be room for genuine exchange. The result, in my experience, is often a rote routine that can occasionally veer into awkwardness for people on both sides of the counter.
Changing the Game
Checkout-free technology changes everything. Not only can customers just walk out when they’re ready to leave, but employees are untethered from the register and empowered to devote more time to everything else they were hired for — cleaning, stocking, foodservice, emptying garbage and, yes, interacting with customers.
I had an interesting conversation last year with an employee at an Amazon Go in Chicago. She recounted working for a major pharmacy chain where the stores were understaffed. Although she wanted to chat with her regular customers, she had to cut them off during peak hours in order to keep the line moving. The register duties also made it difficult to step away and stock shelves.
At one point, she asked her manager what to do when customers asked for items that were still in boxes. His response was simple: Tell them we don’t have it.
It came as no surprise when she spoke glowingly of Amazon Go. We discussed this for nearly 15 minutes, and not once did she look antsy or signal that she needed to get back to work. Interacting with customers like me was her job.
Perhaps some people associate checkout-free with a loss in customer service because they believe it to mean ‘employeeless.’ I suppose it makes sense why they would think of it that way. Objective analysis can be difficult when trends are intertwined with politics. Many folks are rightly concerned about the impacts of automation on society in general and labor in particular, and automation in retail and restaurants is often viewed through issues like the minimum wage debate.
But this association has come up in conversations more than it should. I even read an article a few years ago by a self-described “retail guru” who spoke of Amazon Go as if there weren’t any employees inside—revealing quite plainly that he had never even been to one.
I’m not naive to the fact that some retailers will just see this as a way to cut labor costs. Those sorts of retailers do exist. However, I’d wager that they’re the same brands that have always cut corners. With or without checkout-free technology, it’s doubtful that they’re perceived as ideal places to work or shop.
At the same time, some retail formats truly do not require dedicated employees. I’m sure most readers have visited small kiosks at airports, office lobbies, universities and hotels that would function well if retrofitted with checkout-free technology. Aramark’s convenience store in Santa Ana’s Nineteen01 apartment complex is a great example. It’s a fraction of the size of a typical convenience store — just a few coolers and shelves. Customers scan an app, grab what they need and walk out. Simple and easy.
To borrow a quote from one of my favorite science fiction novels, “The Unincorporated Man,” “Maybe humans have better things to do than pretend to be machines.”
And that’s really the point: Checkout-free retail allows the machines to do the machine work. For the retailer, it unlocks new opportunities to redeploy labor and create a unique, high-quality customer experience. This is important as we live in a world where the reasons to visit a physical store appear to diminish with each year. For the employees, it enables everyone to do more, learn more and build a stronger skillset. Perhaps it will even lead to a higher valuation of customer service skills.
And to the customers, it feels more natural. I think back to a conversation I had with someone who has an Amazon Go in his office building. As the novelty wore off, he said that the average visit appeared to drop below a minute as people would grab one or two items at a time. Simply put: Customers were treating it as their personal refrigerator or pantry.
Whether it’s Amazon Go, solutions from companies like Zippin, Standard Cognition, AiFi or others, I certainly welcome our checkout-free retail future. I hope it comes sooner rather than later.