- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 30, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Shopping minus the cashiers — minus the humans, even. That’s where retail is headed, in large part due to the Walmart-owned Sam’s Club opening of a new technologically savvy store that offers shoppers the option to check out without having to stand in line, without having to engage in human contact, without even having to remember what they came into the shop to buy.

Call it a cure for Busy Mom Syndrome — at least on the surface. But at the same time, there are glitches.

Before tossing out the humans completely in favor of the machinery, one question to consider: Isn’t at least half the experience of retail therapy rooted in good customer service?

Somehow, clicking “buy” on a handheld scanner just doesn’t produce the same warm feeling as that cheerily chatting cashier. Besides, who likes to bag their own buys — particularly if they’re not getting a cut of the corporate savings?

Anyhow, Sam’s Club Now, the latest Dallas rendition of the Walmart-owned Sam’s Club discount outlet, is taking its store in a different direction, a technological direction.

The facility’s just opened its first artificially intelligence infused warehouse equipped with electronic shelf labels and a mobile checkout system that allows for shoppers to pick, pay and leave — to “Scan & Go,” as it’s being called — all without having to interface with any flesh-and-blood employee. The convenience comes courtesy the outlet’s newest app that gives customers the tools to simply select their products, scan them, drop them in their carts and pay for them on their phone. They can even select and pay for them in advance, then drive to pick them up at the store and go home.

But that’s not all.

The Sam’s Club Now app will also give shoppers a mapping device that lets them find what they want on the store shelves — again, without having to go through the hassle of finding a human worker and asking for help. Moreover, customers can simply input their shopping lists onto the app, and the mapping system will quickly compute the fastest way to navigate the store to find each item.

Ever wander around a massive grocery looking for something called liquid smoke? Right. Then you get the benefit.

The app also saves customers’ shopping list histories and makes suggestions based on past purchases. So you don’t forget that box of Cheerios, dontcha know.

One other facet of this Dallas store? Here’s the somewhat creepy part. The store will include an estimated 700 cameras, recording every customer’s every move — ostensibly, to help keep track of inventory and shopping habits, so as to make the whole A.I.-fueled buying experience better for everyone. Ostensibly, too — though this isn’t the angle that’s being harped — to stop would-be shoplifters in their tracks.

“We’ll use all available technologies — including computer vision, augmented reality, machine learning, artificial intelligence, robotics, just to name a few — to redefine the retail experience,” said Jamie Iannone, CEO of SamsClub.com, in a blog post.

Great. But what about this bunch of grapes and that vine of tomatoes, both sold by the pound? Hmm. About that.

Walmart, which used to offer Scan & Go to customers, just ended its service this April due, reportedly in part, to the challenge of weighing out produce from the cart.

“[A]ccording to published reports, the basket size of a typical Walmart shopping trip made Scan & Go difficult to use for many customers, who found it awkward to scan a large number of items, especially fresh products like fruit and vegetables,” Supermarket News reported.

You think Walmart shoppers have large carts full of products — think how Sam’s Club bulk buyers might buy.

Regardless, A.I. shopping is the way of the future. The money-savings is just too tempting for companies to disregard. Dallas is going to be the technology retail ground zero for Sam’s Club, which already has plans to enlarge its A.I. offerings to select stores around the nation. Amazon, meanwhile, is on target to open 3,000 or so cashier-free stores in the next three years. And that means other brick and mortars will have to compete — or face the chopping block.

How shoppers react is still the unknown.

But here’s a thought: It’s one thing for companies to save money by cutting out the human staff. But how about passing along those savings to customers?

Therein likely lies the success-versus-failure of the A.I. retail system: Companies that somehow offer discounts to incentivize customers to shop cashier-free outlets may see an easier time making the A.I. switch. 

After all, having to pay full price for products and then, on top of it, having to ring them up and bag them without help from human cashiers and staffers — all that extra work for no savings might just keep shoppers home, hitting the online stores instead.

• Cheryl Chumley can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter, @ckchumley.


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