Consumers have become increasingly accustomed to performing tasks themselves, from checking in at the airport to checking out at the supermarket. The next generation of do-it-yourselfism could be unmanned retail, and its growth is likely to be driven by shoppers’ desire for fast, convenient services.
While the Amazon Go store is the most tech-forward example of unmanned retail, simpler solutions like e-Commerce pickup lockers and vending machines provide lower-cost alternatives for retailers.
“As you start to think about the idea of unmanned retail, it’s about trying to deliver on convenience,” said Bill Friend, VP of Fluent Commerce in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “We already see small examples of unmanned retail, or self-help; if you go to McDonald’s or a supermarket there’s options for purchasing things without ever talking to anybody.”
Advances in mobile technology also will provide support for unmanned retail, according to Friend. At the Amazon Go store customers check in using the Amazon app on their phones, and smartphones can be used to open lockers without requiring a physical key.
As these systems become more widely adopted, more retailers may open unmanned concepts in U.S. cities, particularly in areas where convenience will be appreciated. Retailers have several options for their unmanned operations:
- Cashierless Stores: By eliminating lines, this concept has promise as a destination for prepared foods and stock-up trips;
- Pickup Lockers: E-Commerce can score points both in delivery times and convenience by deploying unmanned lockers; and
- Vending Machines: Retailers can use this technology to make sales in venues where a full-sized store isn’t feasible.
Cashierless Stores Appeal To On-The-Go Shoppers
Cashierless stores such as Amazon Go offer busy shoppers a place to quickly pick up prepared food and other consumables. By eliminating lines, retailers can attract on-the-go shoppers who want to enter, grab what they want and leave without any hassle.
“I think where you’ll see it the most is where they have a convenience value proposition, where you can go in and out of a store and grab a sandwich quickly,” said Friend. “I think Amazon Go is really pioneering that concept, but I don’t see it from anybody else as much.”
Opening a cashierless store takes a massive tech investment — even Amazon is rolling out the stores slowly, with one location in Seattle, another planned there and two slated to open in Chicago. Walmart is reportedly testing its own cashierless concept, and the retail giant’s partnership with Microsoft could take advantage of the software company’s cashierless technology.
Additionally, these types of stores are not truly employee-free: people are needed to prepare fresh food, restock shelves and handle supply chain issues. Other approaches to unmanned retail, however, involve much smaller investments and less labor.
Lockers Merge Speed, Convenience And Reach
Pickup lockers, which also are being embraced by Amazon, can provide a boost to retailers’ e-Commerce operations. Convenience is the key to their appeal — lockers can be promoted as a hassle-free way to grab an order on the way home from another errand. Additionally, by using local stores for fulfillment, retailers are better able to compete with Amazon Prime’s two-day delivery window — and without the last mile costs and challenges of delivering to a customer’s home.
Lockers also provide opportunities for retailers to sell items to travelers and others on the go. Customers can order what they need online and have it delivered to a nearby locker, saving time on their trip. Friend suggested that airports, shopping malls and supermarkets are all good potential sites for pickup locations.
Vending Machines Are More Versatile Than Ever
While they lack lockers’ synergy with e-Commerce, vending machines combine a tiny footprint with branding opportunities. UNIQLO, which is experimenting with the model, launched 10 in U.S. airports and shopping malls in 2017 to expand sales touch points.
“I think [vending machines] will be the most obvious plan short-term,” said Friend. “You’ve seen them in airports already with device cords and makeup. The extension of the vending model is what we’ll see before we see more stores with the same footprint, but without the workers.”
Products that shoppers normally purchase without consulting an associate are ideal for the vending model, according to Friend. These machines are generally operated by a single retailer or manufacturer, giving them a presence in locations that might not support their usual store footprint.
“I think with these machines you need to have enough of a selection, so it would be difficult to share,” said Friend. “I suspect they will be branded, and it will be interesting to see how that market will develop.”
Between cashierless stores, pickup lockers and vending machines, retailers can choose an approach to unmanned retail that best fits their business model. Convenience-conscious shoppers will appreciate the options, and some consumers may discover they like making purchases without interacting with associates.
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