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Why smart stores don't check out

Mike Elgan | April 10, 2017
Amazon, Starbucks and Apple want you to walk into their stores, pick up your items, then walk right out. There's just one problem.

Other times customers pick up somebody else's mobile order by accident. (I'm a heavy user of Mobile Order & Pay, and I live in constant fear that somebody else will get my tall drip -- clearly my coffee order reflects who I am as a person -- and I'll get their pumpkin spice latte with 12 shots of coconut syrup.)

Mobile Order & Pay can be great for coffee thieves bold enough to just grab somebody else's order. In stores where this happens frequently, the drinks are placed out of reach, forcing Mobile Order & Pay users to wait for a barista to give them their order.

Starbucks executives have hinted that they're working on perfecting Mobile Order & Pay. But making it function as it should will take years — and the development of more advanced technology.

While Mobile Order & Pay is worthwhile for Starbucks (because their long-line problem is bad, coffee is so cheap and errors are fast and cheap to make right), it actually doesn't work well and isn't exportable to other retail situations that aren't selling what is essentially flavored water.

Apple's 'automation' depends on an army of employees

Apple was the first major retailer to enable a smartphone-based system where you can pick your product and waltz out of the store without interacting with a cashier, launching their EasyPay self-checkout system years ago.

The Apple Store app enables you to process your purchase as if you were buying online, then walk out of the store with the item.

This system isn't especially replicable. Apple doesn't use advanced technology for this feature. And one benefit of self-checkout should include cost savings because fewer employees are required. But with Apple, the opposite is true. The system works to deter theft only because Apple Stores employ dozens of employees, often for stores that are really a small single room.

Apple's system works for Apple because that company sells very expensive items at mass market scale, enabling them to afford an army of watchful employees.


Automated retail is years away

Amazon, Starbucks and Apple create the illusion that the era of automated, smartphone-based brick-and-mortar retail is here.

The truth is that the technology behind these stores doesn't work nearly as well as it appears to. And the systems developed thus far can't be extended to the wider world of retail stores.

Someday, stores will enable you to skip the cash register altogether. But for now, I just don't buy it.


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