No tills, no queues, no dramas. Is this the future of shopping?
Guy Kelly finds people are getting the hang of it at the first supermarket to do away with tills altogether
It’s late morning in London, and in a fun-size Sainsbury’s Local near St Paul’s Cathedral, I am buying a cheese sandwich from the future.
Sort of, anyway. The sandwich itself is much like any from the present – cheese, bread, packaging – but the way I’m paying for it and its meal deal allies may just be a glimpse into our uncharted destiny.
“Hello,” a buoyant employee asks as I wander in, “did you know we are the first till-less grocery store in the country?”
I did, and I am practically shaking with excitement to try it.
Last week, the branch unveiled a crucial refurbishment – they have removed the self-service checkout, baskets and tills. In their place are little more than a few oversized barcodes and some explanatory leaflets.
It works, roughly, like so: customers open Sainsbury’s SmartShop Scan, Pay & Go app on their phone, scan what they want as they go, pay via Google or Apple Pay, and then scan one of the oversized barcodes on their way out. No cards, no queues, no humans, no unexpected items in bagging areas.
Today is the second day of a three-month trial, which builds on Sainsbury’s introduction of in-app payments at eight stores across London last year.
This branch – which takes things up a notch by removing the tills – was picked as guinea pig on the grounds that more than 80% of its transactions were cashless, and the company’s headquarters is across the street.
They’ve also removed obstacles: it’s all breakfast, lunch and on-the-go food, and alcohol and tobacco products have been excluded.
My visit begins with momentary ado. I do not have a Nectar card (required), I do not have the app (required) and I do not have a debit or credit card linked to my phone (required).
Fortunately, one of an affable burgundy swarm helps me out, signing me up. He’s probably also taken all my data and signed me up to thrice-weekly Sainsbury’s e-mails until my dying day but one small step for man, and all that.
Once you get through the hassle, the future works remarkably well. Using the phone’s camera rather than a barcode reader, products scan instantly (far quicker than a self-service till); can be multiplied or deleted with a tap (as opposed to the usual 25-minute ordeal of finding a free staff member, gaining a special password, hiring a lawyer and having a trained operative remove the duplicate); bagging as you go feels nothing less than decadent; and paying is unnervingly easy.
An office worker, Norman Mackintosh, agrees. He had downloaded the app already, and is now scanning crisps with abandon.
Others aren’t so sure. One woman huffs, quite reasonably, as she doesn’t have a spare hand for shopping with her phone in one and bag in the other.
Some don’t have the requisite apps, so kick up a fuss. And the queue for the customer service till, where those who refuse to partake – or visit any of the four other stores within half a mile – can pay by traditional means, is eight-strong at one point.
Then there’s the small, ruddy-faced American who appears from nowhere and puts his two Caesar salads back on the shelf upon being told of the trial.
“I think this is a terrible idea,” he spits. “One, you’re doing people out of a job. Two, for a lot of elderly people, the only interactions they have are with the bus driver and with the checkout person. In this brave new world, people are the victims.”
It’ll be a while before till-free becomes standard, but it will be commonplace soon. Rival chains, smarting that Sainsbury’s has pipped them to this, are developing their own apps, and from a cost-saving point of view, it’s not difficult to see why.
Amazon will be next. The retail giant opened a “shop and walk out” Amazon Go store in the US last year, and is rumoured to be opening several in the UK – where cameras and sensors will know what customers take and debit their account as they walk through sensors to leave.
And if that sounds like a shoplifter’s dream, incidentally, so does the new Sainsbury’s system. (They have “a range of security measures” in place, I’m assured, but I suspect chief among them is trust.)
Back in store, the lunchtime rush is beginning, the refuseniks’ queue has gone down to three, and people are getting the hang of the future. A man scanning a Danish beams at his screen.
“If this is what all the shops will be like, then great!” he says. “Especially because I forgot my wallet.”
Let’s just hope he doesn’t forget to charge his phone. - © Telegraph Media Group Limited 2019