Back to the Future of Contactless Checkout

How COVID-19 is shaping c-store disruption
Amazon Go
Photograph: Shutterstock

CHICAGO — In my nearly four years reporting on the convenience-store industry, one of my fondest memories is frantically grabbing a January flight to Seattle to be one of the first to experience the original Amazon Go store and its frictionless checkout experience.

As I look back on that experience—two years on and with the added lens of the coronavirus pandemic—it’s amazing to recognize what has changed … and just how on-target and well-timed Amazon’s technology was.

In Hindsight

Since that first store opened in January 2018, I’ve made plenty of predictions when it comes to Amazon Go and the future of contactless checkout—as it’s become known in the age of COVID-19—in convenience retail. I’m proud to say that my primary prediction has come true. In August 2018, I wrote, “Amazon Go’s biggest threat to c-stores is not just its technology but its potential to irrevocably alter shopper expectations.” In other words, once people experience contactless checkout, they won’t look at the old-fashioned checkout process the same way.

I nailed this one! As consumers expect a more touchless experience, more chains are adding frictionless options in the store and at the pump. ExxonMobil, GetGo, Chevron and Circle K are just a few recent examples.

On the other hand, in February 2019, I wrote that scan-and-pay checkout systems, such as Skip Checkout and Sam’s Club’s mobile checkout app, were ultimately not as convenient as the “just walk out” approach from Amazon Go. As a result, I argued, scan-and-go systems had a smaller chance of being widely adopted.

Then COVID-19 struck and my prediction proved to be very wrong. Today, consumers aren’t as concerned about ease of use or feeling like they’re using technology right out of The Jetsons. Instead, consumers are more concerned with not touching anything and avoiding proximity to other shoppers.

Even Amazon with it’s “just walk out” tech is aware of this change in consumer sentiment. When the e-commerce giant launched its new palm-powered check-in system for retail in September, the company branded it as a contactless experience, and seemed to make an effort to use the word “contactless” in the product description as much as possible.

So while I correctly predicted the growth of contactless checkout across c-stores and the rest of retail, I missed the why and the how of its spread.

I along with most others on the planet could not have predicted that COVID-19 would upend our lives and our priorities as much as it has, But I also made the mistake of putting style before substance with my February 2019 prediction.

Walking through Amazon Go for the first time really was a revolutionary experience. I was genuinely excited about the new directions brick-and-mortar retail could go after visiting the store. I’ve held onto that excitement over the years, but today it’s tempered with a bit of realism.

Moral of the Story

I’ve learned that consumers—and smart retailers—don’t measure tech by its ability to impress, but by its ability to make people’s lives easier. As we look hopefully toward a COVID-19 vaccine in the coming months, it’s important that we consider how technology can continue to improve lives even after we can worry less about coronavirus.

We should also consider that consumer expectations might never be the same after 2020. Consumers have had the better part of a year to try contactless checkout, get used to curbside pickup and explore other means of making purchases from a distance. And even when consumers are once again safe to return to what used to be normal, their buying behaviors will not revert to pre-COVID-19 standards overnight. It will take time and patience to adjust to whatever the new normal might be.

If I’ve learned anything observing convenience retail during this global pandemic, it’s that retailers with forward-looking technology before the onset of the pandemic were the most prepared to work through it. Retailers with robust loyalty programs had a proven method of communicating with their customers. Stores with touchless payment options were ready to reassure their customers they would be safe shopping at their locations.

Whatever the future holds, we won’t be ready to meet it unless we try to get ahead of it.

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