Why checkout-free stores could be a good thing for indies

19 January 2022, 10:38 AM
  • For independent food retailers, the rise of ‘just walk out’ technology further enhances their USP
Why checkout-free stores could be a good thing for indies

Following in the footsteps of e-commerce giant Amazon and big four retailer Tesco, discount supermarket chain Aldi has announced it has opened its first checkout-free store in Greenwich, London.

Alid’s Shop&Go format follows the launch of Tesco’s GetGo and Amazon Fresh in 2021, both of which offer till-free technology that allows customers to walk out without scanning their products. Thanks to carefully positioned cameras, even alcohol and other age-restricted products can be purchased using facial age estimation technology, Aldi said.

On the one hand, the move proves that brands are confident in the future of the high street and physical retail, as Michelle Ovens CBE, founder of Small Business Britain told Speciality Food when Amazon opened its first ‘just walk out’ shop. “Amazon’s move to a physical store is a major signal that the high street is far from over. While the pandemic has accelerated changes to our towns and cities that have been coming for some time, the trend for people to support small businesses and shop locally is also reshaping things,” she said.

On the other hand, the expansion of checkout-free technology only enhances the USP of independent retailers, who are known for offering a more friendly and engaging shopping experience. Dr Jackie Mulligan, expert on the Government’s High Streets Task Force and founder of the local shopping platform, Shopappy, said checkout-free stores run the risk of “sterilising” the high street experience.

“Yes, they bring some advantages in terms of time savings, but they come at the cost of basic human interaction. Technology is the future, but people need to play a part in it, too,” she said. “If Covid has taught us anything, it is the importance of social interaction. Checkout-free stores may be suitable for some big grocers, but social experience will be key if we are to revive our high streets after the pandemic.”

Indeed, ‘experiential retail’ has played a big role in discussions about what the future holds for local retailers. The phrase relates to the way businesses can curate memorable experiences for their customers, with these memories forming part of the product – and it’s not something a convenience-led, checkout-less shop can offer.

Fine food retailers can tap into the stories of their products, offer tasters and provide a truly personalised and authentic shopping experience, something consumers are craving especially now post-lockdown.

“The exchange of goods and trade is inherently a social activity, but over time the focus has been moved to convenience and the boom in mobile technology means people now go online for their transaction,” Sandra Mardin, strategy director for TRO recently told Speciality Food. “Recent history has pushed physical retail into this social shared experience space. That means the bricks and mortar stores have to work harder to get people to come in, and can’t just be a place of transaction.”

Local independent retailers are perfectly placed to tap into the experience economy, which will only help showcase their unique, artisan products. From providing meet-the-maker sessions or ramping up seasonal experiences like pumpkin and sunflower picking, to offering gift-wrapping services or live cooking demos, creating a shopping environment that is interactive and memorable is all part of the indie retail experience.

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