Much has been said about the changing customer behaviour and the great influence of online merchants such as Amazon and eBay. To compete with those influential online-only companies, physical retailers are trying to adopt customer centricity in their stores, including grocers. Sainsbury’s, the third largest chain of supermarkets in the UK, launched the country’s first till-free grocery store in April 2019, which allows consumers to pay for their purchases with their smartphone and walk out of the shop without going through a checkout. We tested the app in Holborn and will take a closer look at how the mentioned solution affects the customer experience in the short term and the long term.

More speed and flexibility

It is useful to name the actual reasons for the implementation of this technology in one of their stores in London. The intention is primarily to speed up the buying process. Sainsbury’s therefore provides customers with a clear process, as the scanning of products works for the most parts very well and in the case where complications arise, a staff member helps to solve problems in the trial period. That sounds like a seamless experience, but this is only the case when it works to scan a product without any problems. The satisfaction quickly dissipates when customers need to open the app again and find a better lighting. After several attempts to position the phone in an optimal way, the most patient customers are stressed and ask the staff member for help.

It is out of the question that the customer app is designed for providing an improved and seamless shopping process to customers, as Sainsbury’s want to “make grocery shopping quicker and more convenient”. This goal mainly focuses on short-term benefits, as products can be easily and quickly picked up and scanned. This is particularly important in times of the rapidly changing customer behaviour and more flexible lifestyles. As customers have less time to shop, retailers need to respond in real time and that is exactly what Sainsbury’s is doing. This does not come as a surprise, as Sainsbury’s asked its customers what part of the shopping experience was letting the side down, and the customers said it was the queueing. The question then arises what Sainsbury’s wants to achieve with this application for the long term.

What customers can expect

Sainsbury’s bosses said that they accelerate investments in technology in the next year, including the rollout of SmartShop self-scan to 100 supermarkets. The store has been refurbished to remove the checkout area and tills, as this enables the staff to “spend their time on the shop floor, helping customers and keeping shelves fully stocked.” The grocer therefore wants to remove checkout areas which leads lower costs due to less staff.

Retailers around the UK respond to the flexible customer with quicker solutions, but in the long term, customers expect more information from retailers, oriented on their needs. The next logical step would be to learn what users buy and improve offers. Mark Thomson, EMEA retail director at Zebra Technologies, puts it in a nutshell:

“Most loyalty card programmes are static in that they wait for you to collect the items and then the payment process. All that tells the retailer is the day, time and what items you’ve bought.”