If you see someone walking out of a supermarket with their food and they haven’t visited a checkout, you can no longer assume that they are up to no good.
Retailers are determined to roll out technology that makes it easy for customers to pick up purchases quickly and avoid long queues at the till.
Amazon started the trend in January when it launched a store in Seattle that uses hundreds of ceiling-mounted cameras and electronic sensors to identify each shopper and track the items they select. Items are then charged to customers’ credit cards when they leave the store.
Now, the Co-op has unveiled an app where customers can scan their purchases on their phone and leave the store without stopping off at the till.
So how do the two retailers approaches differ?
Co-op isn’t as Big Brother as Amazon, which has cameras watch shoppers every move.
Instead, Co-op has created an app built with Mastercard’s secure digital payment system. It is currently being trialled at the retailer’s support centre in Manchester and will also be tested at the UK headquarters of Microsoft, which has a Co-op store. There is then a wider roll-out planned for summer.
The Co-op app allows shoppers to can scan products on their phones as they walk around the store; once finished, the amount owing will be deducted from their account with a single click.
Amazon takes it further. While shoppers scan a QR code when they enter the store, the phone then goes back in people’s pockets. Instead, sensors on the shelves detect when items are picked up by customers and are added to their Amazon Go account. Products are also deleted if they are put back on the shelf, and an electronic receipt is issued as a customer exits.
But Amazon won’t reveal exactly how the technology works, although it took four years to develop, with vague references to computer vision, deep learning algorithms and sensor fusion, like you’d find in a self-driving car.
However, the infra-red cameras have been trained to differentiate between customers and items for sale, even those with a similar appearance, including different flavours of the same canned drink.
What both systems at the Co-op and Amazon have in common is there is no need for human interaction at all, unless an ID check is needed for something like alcohol. For the moment though, both will still maintain staff, with Amazon having people in place to help customers, make food and stock shelves.
So why the move into this way of paying?
Co-op says cash transactions have dropped by more than one fifth over the last five years, with a 15% reduction in the last 18 months alone.
Matthew Speight, director of retail support at the Co-op, said: “Our ambition is to harness technology to deliver the shopping experience that our diverse customer-base requires – when, where and how they need it. It is all about consumer choices and convenience.”
Elliott Goldenberg, head of digital payments at Mastercard UK added: “With the Co-op we are bringing our online and mobile capability – Masterpass – into the physical store, and offering consumers who want a fast and frictionless buying experience, a secure and reliable way to pay.”
Plus, the faster customers can make purchases, the more attractive a retailer can be in terms of return business.
There are also benefits beyond convenience. Co-op’s technology links information from a customer’s membership account, telling shoppers how much they have saved and how much the Co-op will donate to local good causes following the transaction. Members currently receive a 5% reward when they buy own-brand products and services, with the Co-op donating a further 1% to good causes.
Sainsbury’s was also testing a similar app idea last year, but the trial was limited to people buying a meal deal of three items at one store in London. Walmart has a Scan & Go app under trial in 100 stores in the US.
Grab and go just took on a whole new meaning.