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Arkwright’s till, Tesco GetGo and retail tech’s non-linear innovation journey

The checkout-free Tesco GetGo store shows that retail technology has come a long way since the faulty till draws in Open All Hours, but some of today’s innovation goes back to the future

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“I’m terrified of that spring clip,” says errand boy Granville about the corner shop’s cash till just 10 minutes into the first episode of Roy Clarke’s BBC sitcom, Open All Hours.

In the opening show, which aired in February 1976 and set the scene for the decade-long corner shop-based comedy, Granville and his uncle – the shop’s proprietor, Arkwright – frequently tussle with the core retail technology of the time.

Granville’s fear of the spring and Arkwright’s continued attempts to use the till without causing himself an injury are central to the storyline throughout the four series, which star David Jason and the late Ronnie Barker as nephew and uncle respectively. 

What would these two make of the frictionless store movement, which built more momentum in the UK last month when Tesco became the latest retailer to open a checkout-free shop?

The GetGo store allows customers to choose items and walk out without visiting a till – it would be difficult for staff to catch a hand on a spring clip there.

Checkout-free retail in its current guise allows customers to walk straight out with the items they want as a range of technologies track their movements and automatically charge their accounts. Put Arkwright in the modern world and he’d probably be following customers around the store, keeping a tally of their takings.

Morrisons, in Bradford, and Aldi, in Greenwich, have also opened checkout-free stores. Amazon, meanwhile, has six so-called frictionless stores operating under the Amazon Go fascia in the UK.

Timely technology

Analyst group GlobalData says the move by Tesco to join the checkout-free brigade is well timed, as the pandemic increases the need for what it describes as “ambient commerce” – a catch-all term describing tech and artificial intelligence (AI)-supported retail.

Jemima Walker, associate thematic analyst at GlobalData, says: “There is a real chance for success in the UK for checkout-free stores, as evidenced by the rapid adoption of self-checkout technology in recent years. Retailers that do not jump on the growing trend may find themselves falling behind, and Tesco has ensured it is not a party to this failure.”

The trend is not UK-led, as retailers such as Alibaba and in Asia, and Amazon in the US were among the first movers in this space.

“Leaders in food and grocery retail are already operating checkout-free stores globally, with the most action in the US and the Asia-Pacific region, and these openings are promoting a buzz on social media,” says Walker.

GlobalData’s social media analytics platform shows 1,553 posts across Reddit and Twitter in the past year related to ambient commerce.

“We’re seeing global adoption, and continued innovation, with advancements in checkout-free technology being implemented in the smallest to the largest of venues, from a festival pop-up shop to a shopping mall,” she says.

Contact-free in a retail environment is also timely, considering the persistence of Covid-19 in society.

For customers on the go

Retailers deploying this mobile-enabled, checkout-free tech have implemented it in the quest to reduce friction, speed up transactions and give customers the ability to combine the digital with the physical when shopping.

Kevin Tindall, managing director for convenience at Tesco, says GetGo “offers a seamless checkout for customers on the go, helping them to save a bit more time”. It’s an extension of Tesco’s wider convenience offering, with the technology platform underpinning it supplied by Israel-based company Trigo.

The new way to shop is far from perfect, of course, but several inefficiencies associated with traditional shopping wouldn’t arise in a checkout-free environment. Some of these scenarios come to light when watching Open All Hours.

In the opening episode, viewers see customer Mr Bristow struggling to find change to pay for his goods much to Arkwright’s irritation, while at one stage the shopkeeper tricks another shopper, Mrs Blewitt, out of the right change. Such incidents couldn’t happen in the cashless, till-free Amazon Go or Tesco GetGo.

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Frictionless stores are an extension of the self-checkouts popular across the grocery industry. Trade body the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) says 11% of UK convenience stores have some form of self-service in them, with that figure on the rise.

Stores such as Tesco GetGo also represent a further iteration of mobile scan and go systems, which several retailers, such as Sainsbury’s and Waitrose, have implemented.

Japanese lifestyle retailer Muji, too, offers its visitors the chance to checkout using their own mobile phones – they can conduct a transaction digitally and wave evidence of a receipt to staff on the way out. Tech company MishiPay underpins the service, which also allows users to access additional product and promotional information during the process.

More than 60,000 shoppers have made transactions using MishiPay in Muji’s UK stores to date, according to the retailer, with managing director David Brice, saying: “Facilitating frictionless self-checkout has enabled us to create a new level of convenience for our shoppers.

“Thanks to strong user adoption, our staff are now more free to advise customers and add real value to their Muji store visit.”

With its technology implemented in multiple retailers across 14 countries, MishiPay reports a transaction every minute – although that is rising quickly, highlighting consumers’ willingness to use tech that reduces friction in a store environment.

Back to the future

Technology’s role in commerce has clearly ramped up since Open All Hours arrived on TV screens in the 1970s. There was no internet or mobile phones then, nor contactless payment terminals, augmented reality or interactive digital screens in the shop window. But amid this innovation and what seems to be a growing shift towards unmanned tills and fewer checkouts per se, so much in retail remains similar in function.

Arkwright and Granville know all the goings-on in their South Yorkshire neighbourhood, and the locals rely on the store for social interaction as much as its stock. That remains the same for many people today – particularly during the current health crisis.

And the thirst for innovation in retail appears eternal, too, often centred on similar lines. In episode two of the sitcom, the shopkeepers buy an old ice cream van, with Granville encouraged to serve from the “mobile” store. The errand boy is often sent out on his bike to deliver goods direct to people’s homes.

Just last week, Costa Coffee proudly unveiled its first mobile store in the form of a motorised coffee shop which can go where the crowds are, while Tesco announced a partnership with German firm Gorillas to deliver goods to customers quickly via bicycle.

Although launched in reaction to modern consumer demands, there is a reminder there that some of the best ideas are recycled and revamped from the past.

Considering what Arkwright and Granville might make of today’s retail market, and the tech supporting it, James Lowman, chief executive of the ACS, says: “They would be stunned at the speed of self service and people having no interaction with customers. But I wonder if they might notice the irony around the growth of increased service – particularly deliveries. They would have observed that lots has changed in retail, but some elements have certainly gone back to the future.”

At first glance, a comparison of Tesco GetGo and Arkwright’s store shows how much retail has moved forward in 50 years. But a trip down memory lane watching Barker, Jason et al is a reminder that several of today’s retail tech concepts are often old ideas revisited.

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