Not All Frictionless Stores Are Created Equal

Do mobile scan-and-pay services match up to Amazon’s 'just walk out' tech?
Photograph: Shutterstock

CHICAGO -- Given the recent announcements that both 7-Eleven and Walmart-owned Sam’s Club are testing mobile-based checkout systems, the era of frictionless retail is likely on its way.

But are the experiences at Sam’s Club Now and 7-Eleven’s Dallas test stores truly frictionless? As of today, concepts such as Amazon Go, Zippin and Standard Market, which allow customers to purchase goods without any item-scanning or checkout process, are arguably among the only truly frictionless experiences.

What sets these concepts apart from mobile-based checkout apps is not that they do away with cashiers, but that they rid the shopping experience of almost any waiting—also known as friction. For instance, anyone shopping at an Amazon Go holds a QR code on their smartphone over a turnstile sensor one time and they are welcomed inside. Once they cross the threshold, customers simply grab what they want and leave. The moment they hold their smartphone over the turnstile is the only real moment of friction in the shopping process, and it is over in the blink of an eye.

When a customer takes an item from a shelf, and then leaves the store without standing in line or scanning items, it legitimately feels like stealing. Compare that to the new Sam’s Club Now store in Dallas, in which customers scan items with their mobile device as they shop, then check out with one final scan. This is undoubtedly an improvement from the standard checkout process, especially in big-box stores such as Sam’s Club, but it is also slightly less convenient than the experience at Amazon Go.

To be fair, mobile-based checkout concepts such as Sam’s Club Now and Skip Checkout have enabled smartphones to do more for consumers than simply scan bar codes. These apps can also show customers the location of an item in the store, and any red-blooded American who will never ask for help in any retail situation will probably call this tool a godsend.

Even so, scan-and-pay checkout is ultimately less convenient than Amazon Go. Simply put, with Amazon, customers need to use their phone only once. At Sam’s Club Now, customers need their phone every time they add an item to their cart, and if a customer plans on picking up a large number of items, that experience sounds like it includes about as much friction as using a standard self-checkout kiosk. Sure, mobile-checkout tools do not require consumers to wait in line for the next kiosk to open, but it is still less convenient than simply walking in, using a smartphone once, grabbing any item and walking out.

Pointing this out might seem like splitting hairs, and it is to a degree, but it also cannot be denied that not all frictionless experiences are created equal. If the rollout of frictionless retail concepts continues—and there is no indication the trend will slow down anytime soon—it will only be a matter of time before consumers begin choosing their favorite frictionless shopping experiences. Pinnacle's Affiniti PickUp & Go mobile tool, Choice Market's upcoming digital-forward location, Ricker's deal with Skip Checkout and Jiffy Trip's planned phased rollout of Skip Checkout are four convenience-store industry examples of this expanding trend.

For now, any concept that allows people to avoid waiting in line is ideal for consumers, regardless of how many times they must use their mobile devices. But as technology evolves, so do consumer preferences, and both are changing faster than ever. Ultimately, stores that make shoppers feel as if they are stealing will probably appeal to more people than stores that make shoppers feel like they are doing the checkout clerk’s job.

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