Autonomous stores: Coming soon to a neighborhood near you

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Retailers and convenience stores have increasingly invested heavily in technology, especially mobile applications, that enable customers to do much of the shopping legwork from home. Are autonomous stores the next big thing in retail tech? Chris Hartman, senior director of fuels, forecourt, advertising and construction at Rutter’s, thinks so.

An autonomous store is a cashier-less store that doesn’t require a human presence to ring up purchases or check a customer out. They enable a retailer to manage and optimize all of their traditional store operations, but at obviously less overhead, while providing customers with frictionless checkout.

A perfect example is the Amazon Go store, which enables members to put desired items in a virtual cart and just walk out of the store with their purchases without waiting in line.

While autonomous stores are still rare, several major retailers are exploring the concept as they try to improve the customer experience by creating a seamless checkout experience as part of their short-term and long-term strategies.

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Finding success in automation

Taking the concept a step further, stores could eventually even make autonomous technology part of the store itself. Convenience stores have been adopting such technology for a few years, with so-called ‘smart shelves.’ Such technology-enabled shelves track the inventory of all products on each shelf, and order new stock as needed. They track how customers pick up or move products around in order to share insights on what is popular.

As Hartman sees it, if autonomous stores are to succeed, they would work closely with retail loyalty programs. Such programs would enable customers to perform a host of tasks with a retailer that knows the customer’s habits and preferences. Using artificial intelligence (AI), retailers could service such customers with a variety of products customized to their likes.

“Loyalty programs should always be tied to any mobile application because the app is able to store customers’ data and give them information, all in one place,” Hartman said. “Whether it’s a mobile loyalty card, integration into mobile ordering, or simply giving a loyalty balance, it’s all interconnected. It also enables us to have an easy way to communicate with the customer, in a personalized way, which is a huge benefit and cost-effective.”

Hartman expects to see growing activity around the autonomous store, and leading stores may be the ones that invest smartly.

“Overall, there is a big difference between leaders and laggards, but it’s probably not what you think,” Hartman said. “Leaders aren’t always ‘first to market,’ and laggards aren’t always waiting to implement items. Instead, I would say leaders know how to manage spend, execution and benefits of what they’re implementing, while laggards are usually not understanding one or more of those.”

Hartman added that, “Leaders know what to be into early and what to wait on, because of these principles,” she said. “Laggards generally make mistakes on what they’re in early on, or what they wait on. Essentially, laggards are in early on ideas with limited potential and behind on the industry-changing ideas.”

Still, for now, many retailers are still struggling with mobile payments and trying to seed the ground for what technology investments may be around the corner.

“I think we’re still discovering how to do this best, because it’s so new and the landscape is shifting quickly,” Hartman says. “However, I think the principle behind mobile payments would be to understand how to be versatile in your acceptance of payment. Then, the next major step in this area is likely autonomous stores. That will change the game.”

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