GDR visits … the UK’s first “till-free store”

May 07, 2019

Two weeks after writing this article unpicking the future of cashless stores, GDR’s SVP Global Innovation Alex Sbardella visits Sainsbury’s new “till-free” store to interrogate the format from the customer’s and the brand’s perspective.

I was intrigued to read the headlines this week – “Sainsbury’s opens first till-free store in the UK”. Had Sainsbury’s stolen the thunder of Amazon by beating their fabled Go stores to the punch, very quietly ushering in a new era of seamless retail to the UK?  Just last week, we had discussed the potential benefits and risks of a cashless society – were they already putting the idea into practice? And what would the experience be like? Whatever the truth, it was certainly a bold move from the retailer. The store, directly opposite the grocer’s head offices in Holborn, central London, is just a few minutes walk from the GDR offices, so I headed down on opening day with my colleague James Mullan to find out.


The Sainsbury’s eco-system

The location itself is notable: there are four Sainsbury’s locations on the same road, including one directly across the street. This will certainly have reduced the risk of the pilot – if customers don’t like the new experience (and indeed, Sainsbury’s revealed that previously one in five purchases at the store used cash), they can just hop across to the other store. The area, on the edge of the City of London and traditionally known as London’s legal district, is dense with offices and knowledge workers, meaning the customers are likely tech-savvy and time-poor customer – ideal for a checkout-less proposition. Previously, a row of self-checkout terminals lined the front window of the store; these have now been removed and replaced with a breakfast bar and stools for customers to eat their purchases. The store is noticeably small, at less than 1,000 sq ft, and is focused exclusively on food-to-go: sandwiches, snacks, drinks, bakery, fruit and ready-made meals. In other words, nothing too valuable to go missing, and nothing with restrictions to complicate the purchase like alcohol, tobacco or medicine.


Initial observations

Arriving on launch day, there was certainly a buzz in the air (aided by a Sainsbury’s camera crew filming testimonials). Outside the store, a window wrap encourages passers-by to be the first to trial “pay and go” technology. Setting foot inside, the first thing we were struck by was that this “till-free” store…had a till. Not only that, but a staffed till, not a self-checkout – with a very long queue of nine or ten customers, snaking all the way to the back of the store. Presumably, it is there as a backup for the customers who aren’t aware of the till-free option (which seemed to comprise the majority of customers), or who wish to pay cash – but it was hard not to be disappointed that Sainsbury’s had not been quite as brave as advertised.

Another interesting observation was the sheer number of staff on hand for the size of the store – I counted ten – to talk customers through the new process and gather feedback. Of course, this was launch day for a well publicised (and fairly radical) pilot, so you would expect higher staff levels, but we were amused to note that for the moment at least, checkout-less stores appear to be increasing staff headcount rather than decimating it.


Exploring the customer journey

For those of us opting-in to the new experience, the customer journey was straightforward. The store is controlled by the Sainsbury’s “SmartShop” app for iOS and Android, which has been available since last Autumn, and is GPS-locked to the vicinity of certain stores. This means that everything takes place on the customer’s own phone; there is no option to use a store-provided scanner. It was here that we ran into our first issue: signing into the app requires the user to be signed up for Sainsbury’s “Nectar” loyalty programme (and includes a neat feature that scans the barcode on your physical Nectar card to link the accounts) – suggesting that data capture is another element Sainsbury’s are factoring into their business case for the trial. James doesn’t have a Nectar card, and didn’t want one – so he was unable to carry on. I do, and so sign-up to the app was painless.

After that, we grabbed a bag, and simply walked round the store adding products to it, scanning the barcode on each product as we went. Since there is no checkout, there are no baskets available; this made sense, but years of conditioning meant it still felt a little strange to drop items into my personal bag before they were “paid” for. For loose products like bakery, the barcode was on the display. The scanner was quick, and I had no problems with scanning, including a “meal deal” offer that worked as advertised. Once I’d gathered all my items (including James’ lunch, so he could avoid the queue), payment was done in two taps through Google Pay, and I was done! (Despite several prominent QR codes displayed by the exits with the command “Scan to End Your Shop”, I couldn’t quite figure out what the purpose of this was: It could only be scanned after I had paid, and despite the Sainsbury’s rep telling me it was to generate the receipt, I didn’t receive one either through the app or via email).

And with that, we left the store – with a slightly strange feeling. Even with self-checkout, there is still a sense that your purchase has been “validated” in some way by the retailer; leaving with a bag full of items, no paper receipt, and not even a machine to check I had paid felt mildly rebellious. Without Amazon Go’s ever-present surveillance, Sainsbury’s are presumably factoring in some degree of shrinkage to the pilot; it’s interesting to note that whilst the store had the standard CCTV overhead, there weren’t the overt notifications to the customer that they were being watched that you might expect – aside from the ever-present staff.


A sign of the future?

Was it the future? It certainly felt like a step forward: for those with the app, and willing to put up with a reduced product range, it was certainly extremely convenient, and almost perfectly frictionless – more so than even contactless payment at a self-checkout, if not quite matching Amazon Go. If I were a regular visitor here for my lunch, it would be a noticeable improvement to the customer experience, and likely to make me choose Sainsbury’s over the myriad other grocery options in the area. For those who don’t wish to join the loyalty scheme, passing tourists, or cash shoppers, it is clearly worse – but Sainsbury’s doesn’t seem too worried about this.

A few questions remain: will this scale to larger stores with bigger basket sizes and more complicated product ranges – especially those without a backup option across the road? Will this be a shoplifter’s dream? And, aside from the publicity benefits of launching the first “till free” store in the UK (with a till), for a store this size it is hard to see how it meaningfully offers any benefits over how the store was configured before, with SmartShop merely one option for checkout alongside standard self-checkouts. We will certainly watch the outcome of the three-month pilot with interest.


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