I love chatting to people so I was a little surprised when I read a recent survey that said the number one pet hate of people doing the groceries was the check out process. Maybe some people don’t see that small interaction with a stranger as being that interesting – or maybe the actual process of lining up was what particularly irked people – but this information from the major retailers across the world was what led to the current process we see in Australia of self-serve checkouts. The trials started and, very quickly, we have seen the mass adoption of this process.

Most people would think this is as far as it goes but the next step has already started.

Across the world at the moment there are a variety of different methodologies being employed to pay for your grocery shopping. 

From the beginning of this year, Amazon started opening up their trial ‘Amazon Go’ stores where a series of sensors and cameras and geofencing detect what product you put into your physical cart and then it is automatically added to your virtual cart on your phone. To make the purchase, you only need to pick up the item. The amount of tech going on behind the scenes is mind boggling and just a small indication of how much money companies are prepared to throw at the retail dollar. More interesting is the fact that a business that started off as an exclusive online business is now moving into bricks and mortar.

For several months, shoppers at selected Walmart stores have been able to scan the products they collect using their phone and then pay at the end before they leave the store. This is a variation of our current method of self-serve checkouts but rather than scan the products at the end the shopper scans as they purchase. The products are then paid for on the app and the shopper leaves the store.

As is so often the case, legislation needs to try and keep up with technological change. Shoplifting policies are pretty simple. Did a customer leave a store with a product that was not paid for? Yes? Shoplifter! There needs to be proof of intent and, with our changing landscape, it would seem that the proof of intent will need to be ramped up a few levels.

If a customer doesn’t scan a product by mistake or the app missed a scan or two what does the law say? Several years ago, Apple sent a shopper to jail in New York City with the accusation of shoplifting. He had tried to walk out the door with a set of headphones which he ‘purchased’ in store electronically but he had not clicked the final payment button. Intent or mistake? In the old shopping world, the answer was easy. The product was in your backpack and you didn’t pay for it. Nowadays the answer is more complicated.

Australia has a reputation around the world as being a country that adopts technology early and we are not too far behind in this area.

From yesterday the Woolworths store in Double Bay in Sydney started an Australia-first trial of ‘shop and go’ where an app will be used to scan products onto your phone and pay for them via your app. Once completed, you simply leave the store. My estimation is that this trial will start and be successful and it will only be a matter of which technology we see rolled out in stores across the nation. For anyone planning a long career as a checkout operator, my advice would be to start planning a new career! Whilst I make that comment in an offhanded manner, there is a serious issue in technology replacing employees. I don’t believe banning technology replacement is the answer but having industries that can utilise people differently might be one method going forward. I am sure employment groups were unhappy when self-serve petrol stations started their trials but we have now accepted them as part of society and the person who sits behind the counter doesn’t even get the exercise of walking out to clean a windscreen. There are many industries headed this same way and the supermarket industry is about to be the next one to fall.

Mathew Dickerson

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