Do smart supermarkets herald the end of shopping as we know it? | Retail industry

Welcome to the supermarkets of the future. They may look and feel like the supermarkets we are all used to – and stock the same bread, butter and bananas – but these shops are now fitted out with more than £1m of the latest technology that their bosses promise will put an end to our biggest frustration (queueing) and our most persistent crime (shoplifting).

Jill French, a legal secretary in her 30s, wearing a sharp navy suit and matching beret, has just left a Tesco Express on London’s Holborn Viaduct empty-handed. It’s coming up to 6.30pm on a Thursday and, like dozens of others, French has popped in for a few essentials on her way home. “I just went in to grab pasta, milk and some broccoli,” she says. “But there was such a queue I got frustrated and walked out.”

An eight-minute walk away is another near-identical Tesco Express where there are no queues. This shop is the cleverest of all the 2,700 Tescos in the UK.

There are no checkouts (self-scanning or traditional), no checkout assistants, and – in theory – no chance of shoplifting. This Tesco, called GetGo, is filled with thousands of cameras, weighted shelves and artificial-intelligence technology that watches your every move, figures out what you’ve bought and bills you directly as you walk out.

It’s not just Tesco that is trialling these new “smart” supermarkets. Retailers across the UK, and the rest of the world, are racing to deploy rival technology. The model for all of them is similar.

First, you must download an app, register a credit card and scan a QR code on your phone to enter through train station-style gates. Barriers prevent those without the app from entering the shop. Once inside, the technology follows you around the store recording every item you pick up (and put back). When you’re done you just walk out and after a few minutes your phone alerts you as to how much you’ve spent.

The supermarkets say time-pressed, easily frustrated people are crying out for a better, hassle-free shopping experience, and if these trial stores are successful they will roll out the technology across the country.

It’s almost 74 years since the first British supermarket opened in Manor Park, east London. At this branch of the London Cooperative Society, customers could walk round the store and take items off the shelves by themselves. It was revolutionary. In the years before, shoppers had to present the shopkeeper at a counter with a list of items that their assistants would fetch. Choosing your own tomatoes was banned, and touching the products could lead to prosecution.

As with many innovations, the “self-service” supermarket concept was exported from the US, where retail pioneer Clarence Saunders opened Piggly Wiggly in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1916. If you’re wondering about the name, Saunders said it was named “so people will ask that very question”.

Today all shops, big or small, follow a similar concept. But our retail needs are evolving.

The days of “the big weekly shop” are over, with Britons going to a supermarket at least twice a week, according to YouGov, while a growing minority admit to popping in more than twice a day.

The new generation of AI stores is meant to respond to these changes, but are there dangers in tinkering with one of the last remaining social levellers?

Supermarkets are more than just places to buy food; they provide a space for a daily mixing of people of different classes and backgrounds in our increasingly siloed world.

An illustration, on a pale blue background, of a till sinking in the sea of a shredded till receipt
‘All of the supermarkets say the technology is designed to make shoppers’ lives easier, but experts say the real desire is to improve their bottom line as they can cut back on the wage bill and save some of the £5.5bn lost every year to shoplifting and employee theft.’ Illustration: Pete Reynolds

If AI takes over, will those without access to the latest smartphone be barred from the great supermarket melting pot? Will lonely older people lose their friendly chat with the cashier, which could be their only conversation of the day?

Research backs up the retailers’ hunch about our frustrations with shopping. A recent survey by packaging company DS Smith found that more than a third of 2,000 people polled would walk out of the store rather than wait five minutes in a checkout queue, and 46% said they were so irritated by queuing that they would consider not coming back to the shop again.

Laura Saunter, a senior retail analyst at the consumer trends analytic firm WGSN, says supermarkets have spent years trying to bust queues because they are the customers’ “number one pain point”.

Many of us are now so impatient that waiting a few minutes for a checkout assistant to become free can feel like an unacceptable hassle in a world where technology dominates and instant gratification is expected.

“These stores are positioned at millennial parents who are busy; they want to be in and out, they don’t want to waste their time,” Saunter says. And younger people, generation Z, just don’t want to interact with store staff.”

Tesco has already tested the technology at its employee-only supermarket in Welwyn Garden City for more than a year. Amazon has 15 stores that use similar technology, including one almost directly across the street from the Tesco on Holborn.

The supermarkets’ analytics teams seem to have a thing for the central London neighbourhood with Sainsbury’s also opening a trial smart supermarket on the same street in late November.

The race is on. Aldi is preparing to open a similar smart store in Greenwich, south London. Morrisons is testing its own vision of the technology, codenamed Project Sarah, at its Bradford headquarters, and plans to quickly roll out dozens of small stores at busy locations.

Another two of the Amazon stores opened in Chingford and East Sheen shortly before Christmas. A recent leak of internal documents reveals that these are just baby steps on to the UK high street for Amazon, which was founded by the world’s second-richest person, Jeff Bezos, in 1995 and is now the second-largest retailer on the planet, collecting sales of more than $1.2bn (£900m) every day.

The internet giant is planning to open about 60 more UK stores next year, followed by 100 in 2023 and another 100 in 2024, according to a report by the blog Business Insider. Amazon has long been accused of attempting to kill off the high street by encouraging us all to buy almost everything online. But could its desire to now open bricks-and-mortar stores revitalise our urban centres?

All of the supermarkets say the technology is designed to make shoppers’ lives easier, but experts say the real desire is to improve their bottom line as they can cut back on the wage bill and save some of the £5.5bn lost every year to shoplifting and employee theft.

The most frequently stolen items from UK stores include spirits, sirloin steaks, razor blades, cosmetics, infant formula and batteries, according to the Centre for Retail Research (CRR). Cheese also makes the top 10, with posh bries and aged camembert often stolen to order by restaurants.

Retailers in Scandinavia are ahead of the UK, opening shops without checkout assistants, security guards or any other members of staff present. Instead, customers use their phones to open the doors of shipping container-like stores, shop completely alone and walk out to the beep of the bill notification on their phone.

In less than three years, Stockholm-based start-up Lifvs has opened 29 of the tiny stores in remote villages across Sweden, which in some instances had lost their last corner shops decades ago. Giulia Ray, a beekeeper in the village of Veckholm, 60 miles east of Stockholm, said the opening of the Lifvs “shopping box” added to rather than took away from community spirit. “You go inside and get something, and maybe someone else is here and you can have a chat,” she says as she picks up essentials and restocks the shelves with her own honey at the same time.

While fitting out supermarkets with the new technology costs about £1m-per-store, the firms installing it claim it will pay for itself within 18 months because it will hopefully eliminate theft. “With this technology, you can’t really steal, we know who is in the store and we know where all the products are,” says Yair Holtzer, who helped develop the technology for Trigo, an Israeli firm that fitted out the Tesco store, and is working with other major retailers across the world.

“With these systems it cuts out not just shoplifting but also mistakes, errors and employee fraud,” he says. “These are problems that all retailers have, and could be solved.”

The transparent barriers to Tesco's smart supermarket, with large blue round stickers indicating where shoppers scan their barcode to enter
In the basket: Shoppers scan a barcode to enter smart supermarkets. Photograph: Ben Stevens/Parsons Media

Supermarkets lose about 1.4% of their combined £200bn annual revenue to “shrinkage” – industry code for customer or employee theft and admin errors.

Professor Joshua Bamfield, director of the CRR, says supermarkets thought they had found a solution to queue frustration and high wage bills with the introduction of self-scanning machines that were rolled out in the early 2000s and are now ubiquitous. “But it is very easy for customers to skip a few items through without scanning the barcode,” he says. “It’s quite easy to get away with things that you wouldn’t be able to at a staffed till.”

Probe a little, and even the most upstanding friends and acquaintances have a shoplifting tale – from the south London primary school teacher who makes a point of stealing one item in every shop to the writer who was tapped on the shoulder by a security guard who’d seen her tap the screen for one banana when she bagged two.

A study by the University of Leicester’s criminology department found that theft from stores with self-checkout machines was between 33 and 147% higher than those with only traditional checkouts. The researchers also found that the number of self-checkout machines available to use was correlated to the level of theft.

In response, shops have cut down on the number of self-checkout machines available per staff member which, Bamfield says, explains why supermarkets often annoyingly place out-of-order stickers on working terminals.

Supermarkets, including Tesco, have also begun installing screens on self-checkouts showing a livestream of customers scanning their items. “They’re reminding you that every action you take is being filmed,” says Bamfield. “It’s like the shop saying, ‘Are you sure you want to steal?’”

It’s not just customers who steal. Bamfield’s research shows that about £1.4bn a year is lost to shoplifting, followed closely by £1.3bn in employee theft. The new technology is designed to tackle that, too.

“It might not seem so obvious, but a big proportion of theft is due to staff on the take, and by removing staff from tills this technology will eliminate that loss,” he says.

Bamfield believes the most common technique staff use to steal is referred to in the industry as “the switcheroo”.

“An uncle will say to his cashier nephew, ‘I’m coming into the store tomorrow afternoon and I’d like a discount,’” he explains. “When the uncle comes to the checkout, the nephew will have a barcode sticker for a watermelon or orange or something on his palm and while pretending to scan the uncle’s bottles of scotch whisky the nephew will scan the watermelon sticker.”

Bamfield, who has spent a career working with retailers, and has written a book on shoplifting (Waterstones describes his 2012 title Shopping and Crime as “an interdisciplinary study of retail crime as a cultural phenomenon”), isn’t sure the new checkout-free supermarkets will succeed in eliminating shoplifting altogether.

A mobile phone, held in a hand, showing an itemised supermarket receipt
Screen grab: shoppers receive a text with a receipt a few minutes after leaving a smart store. Photograph: Ben Stevens/Parsons Media

“I was at a retail conference in Norwich, and one of the speakers flashed up a picture of one of these new stores and said, ‘Well, that is the end of shoplifting.’

But, we just don’t know yet how good this technology will be at reducing theft.”

Shoplifting, which was first documented in the 16th century, began soaring in 2014 after the law was changed to define “low-value shoplifting” as a summary offence. This means that police forces can decide not to investigate thefts from shops of goods worth less than £200.

Anyone caught stealing less than £200-worth of goods can still be arrested and face prosecution, but the 2014 antisocial behaviour, crime and policing act allows them to plead guilty by post. Police in England and Wales recorded 374,000 incidents of shoplifting in 2019 (the latest figures available), up from 317,000 in 2013, before the law changed.

Retailers have responded with more technology. Sainsbury’s is experimenting with machine-learning “concealment detector” technology to monitor and record when shoppers place an item in their pocket and alert in-store security guards in real time.

Sainsbury’s says its 30-store trial partnership with UK artificial intelligence startup ThirdEye has helped cut theft from its spirits aisles by 47%. Razwan Ghafoor, co-founder and chief executive of ThirdEye, says the technology helps make CCTV smarter.

“You can have hundreds of cameras in a store, but which feed should you be watching?” Ghafoor says on the phone from Heathrow as he boards a plane to New York the day after selling ThirdEye to larger rival Standard AI for millions of pounds. “We’ve taught the system to learn when someone picks up an item and pockets it. The system will flag it and send a four-second clip to a human to investigate. It means the security team can watch a lot less footage and concentrate on the footage they need to watch.”

No queues, less shoplifting, lower wage bills: the benefits of this new generation of hi-tech supermarkets are clear. But campaigners are concerned they represent another step in the UK’s march towards an “everyday surveillance society”.

“Going to the supermarket is one of the most mundane, everyday things we do. The fact that surveillance and data gathering in such a space is being normalised is deeply troubling,” says Emmanuelle Andrews, policy and campaigns officer at human rights group Liberty. “Shopping should be one of the great levellers, where the businessman in the sharp suit is shoulder-to-shoulder with the pensioner on benefits. Everyone has to buy food, but with this technology only those with a smartphone and credit cards will be able to shop there.”

In the near term, the biggest losers from this technological revolution are likely to be Britain’s army of 270,000 checkout workers, most of whom are women. The pandemic has already hit retail workers hard, with some 190,000 jobs lost since the start of the first lockdown in March 2020. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has identified supermarket cashier jobs as among the most at risk of being replaced by automation, with 65% of checkout-operator jobs said to be in peril.

“The checkout-free technology is specifically designed to eliminate jobs, and save money,” says Dr Carl Benedikt Frey, an Oxford University economist and expert on automation whose research the ONS statistics are based on. Up to 47% of all jobs could be done by machines “over the next decade or two”, he believes. Frey predicts that checkout workers are likely to be among the first to lose their jobs to the robots, alongside bar staff, farm workers and sewing machinists.

Supermarkets have offered stable employment to generations of Britons excluded from higher-skilled roles, providing modest but reliable incomes – and the prospect of advancement – in communities blighted by manufacturing decline.

Frey fears that a national rollout of AI stores would send the checkout worker the same way as the elevator operator, which as of today is the only one of 270 job descriptions listed in the 1950 US census to be completely eliminated by automation.

“We think this coming change is unprecedented, but actually what is happening mirrors what we saw in the Industrial Revolution and hollowing out of middle-income jobs,” he says. “The technology is very different, but the effects on the economy are quite similar.”

Back in that Holborn Tesco, among the familiar daily groceries, a change is coming that could herald the biggest revolution in how we shop for groceries since the opening of the first supermarket on 12 January 1948. Like their predecessors, the smart supermarkets are said to be designed to make our lives easier. But is it time to allow the shop assistant to follow the elevator operator into obsolescence, or could we all learn to wait a little longer and enjoy a friendly chat at the checkout?