The future of the self-checkout

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It’s happening everywhere: at airports across the globe, at my local supermarket, at the local fast food joint. The self-checkout mania is growing and there seems no way to stop it. The reason is clear: The largest proportion of a retailer’s cost is their wage bill. That’s even more important in low margin business like grocery shops, big box retail, and fast food.

Replace the worker with the customer

 Yup, customers are not stupid. They understand they are replacing the cashiers and check-in agents. The customers do have to work more to get their task done and get nothing in return. Sometimes, the process is quicker in self-checkouts. More often than not, the good old cashier gets it done much quicker, but we get the bonus of pleasantries and eye contact. We are buying into the myth of self-checkout convenience while the stores basically turned the screen by 180 degrees and let us do the work.

This is just a stepping stone

It’s pretty clear where we go from here:

  • The low-margin stores will go to full automation (see Amazon Go) as soon as technology allows them to eliminate fraud through Machine Learning and various surveillance methods.
  • High-End Retail will increase their investment in highly skilled labor to deliver a completely non-digital, human experience.

The interesting space is between those polar opposites. It’s easy for high-end fashion brands with an even higher profit margin to invest in fashion advisors and consultants.

My guess, it will come down to generosity.

The big stores need to be generous with their shareholders, the high-end stores with their service and delivery for their customers to be generous. The majority of remaining stores are somewhere in between. The small stores will get it right first, they are close to the customers and their needs and the required empathy. The successful midsize stores will most likely focus on ambient payments, ensuring payments come to their customers as an organic part of the experience. An experience fueled by generosity towards the challenges of their customers.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to put my groceries on the belt and hope the cashier will be around tomorrow to greet me again.

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