Will all retailers soon go cashier-less?

AiFi product recognition and tracking - Source: AiFi
Mar 06, 2018

After reportedly five years in development, the first Amazon Go opened in January, raising speculation over the practicality and adoption rate in the industry of cashier-less stores. Last week, a start-up said it is getting ready to deliver the “first scalable checkout-free solution” suitable for mega-retailers and affordable for mom and pops.

Describing itself as a “computer vision technology,” AiFi’s founders previously worked for Google and Apple on projects like 3D Touch and Google Glass.

Using AI (artificial intelligence) algorithms, sensors and camera networks, AiFi’s checkout-free technology will track shoppers as they move through the store, recognize shoppers as individuals and secure payment through a companion app, much like the tech used at Amazon Go.

AiFi could save shoppers billions of hours waiting in lines while offering retailers improved inventory management data as well as valuable insights into consumer shopping habits and product preferences. According to the company, the technology aims to provide a “comprehensive understanding of shopping behaviors and gestures (even identifying abnormal gestures), and the ability to identify people who are shopping together as a group.”

AiFi promises to be able to track up to 500 shoppers and “tens of thousands of SKUs.” The technology, which will be available via a subscription, also doesn’t require any major retrofitting. With little reliance on hardware, the AI costs are expected to scale to make it accessible to small stores.

According to TechCrunch, the company is planning to outfit a demo store in the San Francisco Bay area along with conducting a pilot with a larger grocer in New York that will open by the end of the year. The company has so far received $4 million in seed funding.

Said Steve Gu, CEO, AiFi, in a statement, “The shopping experience now demonstrated and widely promoted by Amazon is just the tiniest taste of what the AiFi technology will do for retailers — with shops that range from tiny to huge.”

While AiFi said AI should free up cashiers to do more creative tasks, many articles covering the introduction discussed the possibility that jobs would be lost. Also explored were the tradeoffs of privacy consumers would make in exchange for avoiding checkout lines. Wrote Rhett Jones for Gizmodo, “Have fun being followed by personalized ads and never having to interact with a stranger again.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Does it make sense that the underlying technology behind AI that supports cashier-less stores would be highly scalable? What advice would you give to big and small retailers should the technology come within reach?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"More than the size of the retailer, the implementation of this technology will be governed by the retail vertical."
"Cash as a means of payment is not going away any time soon. Thinking of the future in strict binary terms is not very helpful and can even be ruinous."
"Scalability is not the issue for AI that supports cashier-less stores. There are many other challenges that make this more complex to execute..."

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45 Comments on "Will all retailers soon go cashier-less?"

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Mark Ryski

The Amazon Go store reportedly had hundreds of sensors, scanners and cameras – it took years to develop and still wasn’t perfect at launch. I’m very skeptical that early stage entrants like AiFi are robust and accurate enough to be viable. I would advise all retailers to proceed with caution on this front – affordable, accurate solutions are still years away.

Seth Nagle

Great points Mark, additionally I’m curious to see how AiFi technology will track the one-off shopper from the basket — the kid that sneaks off and tosses in the extra bag of cookies or the husband that branches off from the group to grab the salad for the BBQ.

There are lots of scenarios that need to be played out first before grocers can feel confident as every penny counts in this business.

Max Goldberg

Cashless stores may be in our future, but many consumers rely on cash and dumping that option means losing their business. Retailers should explore AI technology, but be aware of consumer preferences and not rush to adopt technology that may not fit the lifestyles of many of their customers.

Lyle Bunn (Ph.D. Hon)

Truly stated, Max. Consumers do vote with their wallet, no matter the payment they pull from it. We are all addicted to points, and cards make this seamless.

Jon Polin

While some shopping behaviors are debated — some consumers prefer in-store vs. online, some prefer big boxes vs. mom-and-pops, etc. — this technology is a runaway win. Do any consumers like waiting in checkout lines? My advice to retailers of all sizes is that when this technology is truly viable and scalable: grab it — free up your customers from the tyranny of checkout lines.

Chris Petersen, PhD.

AiFi will save customers countless hours, and dehumanize the experience. Customer experience is situational and depends upon context. When the shopper knows exactly what they want, and speed is at the top of their list, AiFi-type stores provide convenience and value. However, when shoppers are less sure about choices or need assistance in making selections (e.g. apparel or technology) knowledgeable staff become highly valued. There is no single best solution for every situation or customer scenario. The best advice for retailers selling “high touch” products and services is to double down on staff who can differentiate experience in-store as well as service after the sale.

David Weinand

Perfectly stated Chris. It’s all contextual. I would say that for convenience stores, that technologies like AiFi have a real application that will likely rule the day in the not-so-distant future. Other formats need to be careful as the customer experience is how they need to define their store strategy.

Celeste C. Giampetro

Piling on to David’s comments as well. I couldn’t agree more that the consumer experience must match up with the store’s value. Tech is great if it improves the customer’s experience with your store. I, for one, don’t mind waiting in lines. I heard a great joke just the other day waiting in line from a kid and her mom in front of me, and it made me laugh all day.

Phil Masiello

Every time I shop, I wish this technology was already implemented. The technology, once proven, will absolutely be scalable. I believe there are going to be issues with theft, inventory management and product management. But once those are worked out, it will be off to the races.

Once this is ready, in order to get the most out of this technology retailers must pay attention to the information it is providing. By watching customer shopping behavior patterns, it will enable retailers to build more efficient layouts and shopping experiences. The obvious benefits are around product mix and product placement.

The benefits to the customer are speed and convenience.

I absolutely believe it will become a reality and I can’t wait.

Byron Kerr
Byron Kerr
Head of eCommerce, Tuft & Needle
4 years 5 months ago
Completely aligned with your sentiment. The key to getting this out in the market before it is perfected is DATA. It’s much easier to refine and tweak with real-time use, and the quicker AiFi and others have access to real-time use/data, the quicker they can iterate and build a more robust, scalable solution. For B&M to continue to thrive in the growing eCommerce/convenience-first world we live in, they must provide experiential shopper experiences that remove frustration and increase loyalty. The retailer that I rarely hear mentioned in this conversion is Apple. They’ve had a “Scan and Go” concept for years now: want an iPhone case and know where to find it? Pick it up off the shelf, scan and pay via your phone, and GO. They are a great example of building a hybrid approach where you can engage a Genius or Sales Rep when needed (and for bigger ticket items), conduct self-awareness/learning of products via demos, and purchase lower ticket items on the go. Would love to see how they evolve this concept in… Read more »
Dave Nixon

The scale issue will not be out at the edge with the sensors and the array of capture devices. The scale issues will show themselves with analyzing the TSUNAMI of data and making real-time and predictive decisions based on it. Very few companies in the world truly have the ability to manage that level of analysis. I know this for a fact. Teradata is one of them and was built over 30 years. The industry throws around terms like “AI,” and “machine learning” and “predictive” and “scale” like it is easy. It just isn’t.

This is great stuff though and startups like these will further disrupt the retail “channel” but I am skeptical of such bold claims as these.

Brandon Rael
While the transaction-focused, behind-the-counter sales associate or cashier may become obsolete with these new technological innovations, it’s time to unleash the power of this resource and evolve them into brand ambassadors. We all could agree that in our mobile world, the traditional cashier paradigm is phasing out, however, the challenge for retailers both big and small is what to do with these resources once their roles evolve. If you empower these sales associates to roam the sales floor with a mobile iPad-like device, they can evolve into the Apple store model of being a brand evangelist, product specialist and a cashier. With the right consumer insights at their fingertips, they can be on equal ground with the already digitally-empowered consumer. The challenge for retailers is to provide an outstanding in-store customer experience. What better way to provide this then to leverage your existing workforce, empower, train and provide a defined career path as brand ambassadors. This is all part of the evolution of the retail model. Automation will not solve retail’s challenges by itself. Rather,… Read more »
Dr. Stephen Needel

Brandon, very hopeful — and highly unlikely. If this technology becomes available, most of these people are out of a job. Nobody wants to be sold to in a grocery store.

Brandon Rael

I do agree that it’s an optimistic perspective and more than likely there will be significant reductions in staff at the grocery stores.

However, I am very confident that the empowered sales associate/brand ambassador will resonate very well within the fashion, luxury, beauty and lifestyle segments.

Phil Chang
Phil Chang
Retail Influencer, Speaker and Consultant
4 years 5 months ago

This is an interesting way to keep your store staff in places that matter most. If the technology is available and affordable, moving the human cashier away from the till and to the floor where they can interact with consumers is better for the retailer, the staff member and the consumer.

The key is “affordable.” Large retailers *may* be able to afford this, but small/medium retailers will struggle with implementing this. To add to this challenge, companies like Square, Lightspeed etc., are already creating a great cash-out experience, meaning that cashier-less is going to have to be very competitive for retailers to switch.

Bob Amster

It is not the AI that has to scale. Cashier-less environments require numerous sensors and cameras that send information to the AI algorithms. Deploying these is not a trivial expense and, if ever, the expenditure will not be affordable by all retailers for a long time.

Chris Buecker

Yes, absolutely. This is going to be the future. Who likes to stand in line? The consumer appreciates frictionless shopping during his purchasing journey. Also e-commerce giants like Alibaba and JD.com are in the race to roll out the first fully automated store for commercial use with cashier-less solutions included. My advice to retailers would be: Jump on this train and try it out in a test market. If successful, start soon with the rollout. It will not only increase efficiency but it will also draw lots of media attention.

Harley Feldman

The underlying camera technology, as Amazon has found, is not scalable without cost impact. The challenge in recognizing more products that are densely stored along with the humans moving through the store requires a lot of cameras. The other challenge is recognizing 100 percent of the products in the store. In the RFID space, one of the lessons learned is 100 percent read rates are important to having accurate data in support of getting to a complete picture of consumer demand and recording the sales. The camera solution will require the same accuracy in the future. I would advise retailers to track the technology and determine if it works for them. Sellers of shoes, lingerie and other personal items will be unlikely to use the automated checkout technology to the exclusion of associates helping the consumers.