CES 2018: Unattended retail

Digitas

Rafe Blanford

CES 2018: Unattended retail

The concept of unattended retail – where registered shoppers simply walk into a shop, pick up whatever they want and leave – was hard to avoid at CES 2018. Where Amazon Go blazed a trail in 2017, this year more companies picked up the baton. Rafe Blandford, Strategy Director at Digitas, explores some of the key developments in this space.

What’s happening?

Just before CES last year, Amazon announced its Amazon Go store in Seattle, where registered shoppers simply walk in, pick up whatever they want and leave — all the charging is handled by automatic observation of what they do in the store. And indeed, just this week the first of these stores finally its doors. At CES this year, several companies brought similar ideas, all trying to find new spaces in which to do physical retail and, at the same time, remove shop staff from the equation.

AIPoly won an innovation award for its machine-vision-powered retail technology that allows customers to simply pick up what they want from shelves and be automatically charged in the background. The platform also supports self-inventory – it will always know what's left on the shelf, where it is, and can estimate how long products will stay on shelves in real-time.

Chinese commercial giant Suning was showcasing its unmanned, automated Biu Store. The first of these stores, selling consumer electronics, was opened in Nanjing in August 2017, and the company has already opened four more stores in other cities, including Shanghai and Beijing. In order to access the stores, customers must add a photo ID to their bank card in the Suning Finance app; they will subsequently be recognised using facial recognition and granted access to the store. RFID (radio frequency identification) tags on the products in the store are used to track which products the customer has picked up – with the checkout experience taking less than 15 seconds.

Robomart plans a fleet of autonomous stores. Customers use an app to choose what they need; the appropriate store drives to them; they go outside and choose what they want from it. Robomart tracks what customers have taken using a computer-vision-based "grab and go" checkout free technology and will charge them and send a receipt accordingly. The company also has plans for an autonomous fleet management system that manages orders, routing, restocking and teleoperations. 

Cerevo demonstrated Qvie, a mobile, cashless vending box creates a mini autonomous store anywhere you set it up. One of the maker’s suggested use cases is for Airbnb hosts to use them to provide amenities for guests to buy.

Why does it matter for marketers?

In physical retail, the checkout is rarely the best part of the experience. After the pleasure of finally making your choice it inevitably feels like an administrative task; not fun. Self-service checkouts may reduce costs for the retailer and, if there are enough of them, reduce the length of lines, but off-loading the task of checking out onto the shopper is rarely greeted with enthusiasm. Checkout-free, or unattended retail, therefore has huge potential to change a fundamental aspect of the retail experience.

For retailers that can adopt this technology, there is much to think about. However, those that may struggle to implement it in the short term should not ignore the trend. The growth of unattended retail as a concept highlights the fact that more emphasis and investment needs to be made on the customer experience at the checkout - thus making the retail experience a more seamless, enjoyable process. So there are lessons here for all retail marketers.

What are the implications for the future?

With the exception of Suning, the solutions on show at CES were all at pilot stage, but you can expect to see more unattended retail installations pop up in 2018, before it becomes more commonplace as we move towards 2020.

This development obviously has huge implications for the retail sector and could radically transform the way that consumers shop – and equally how marketers target them with offers. There are of course several hurdles to overcome before this practice becomes common place – not least concerns around personal data and privacy issues. Watch this space.

Rafe Blanford

Rafe Blanford

Strategy Director

Rafe joined global marketing and technology agency Digitas as Mobile Strategist in 2014. He works as part of a blended team of strategy, creative and technology experts, leveraging his extensive mobile knowledge and working with the agency’s clients to help develop mobile strategies and creative solutions.

He was previously an independent mobile consultant, advising brands like Nokia, Orange, and Ericsson on their business strategies.

Rafe is also a co-host of mobile technology podcast 361 Degrees, and the founder and editor of the All About Windows Phone and All About Symbian sites, which have a combined reach of more than a million. 

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