When Amazon last year introduced the world to its vision for grocery stores with Amazon Go, the mainstream media did its best to outdo each other to predict the retail apocalypse with the rise of the machines.
The New York Post went as far as saying Amazon's plan was the "end of jobs" as we know it. The tabloid even used superimposed Amazon's logo on the image of a robot from a cheesy sci-fi film to illustrate the point.
While Amazon Go did bring up questions about automation and the future of retail, the concept is still confined to a single location in Seattle almost nine months after it was first introduced.
Meantime, Walmart recently commenced the rollout of a mobile app that enables consumers to scan and pay for items without the need to wait in line.
While self-service checkout in itself is nothing new, the experiences that Amazon and Walmart offer do raise a compelling question for consumers and merchants: do we really need cashier and checkout lanes?
That question was the focus of a breakout session Tuesday at the fourth annual CONNECT: The Mobile CX Summit in Philadelphia. The answer is complicated, which is usually the case with emerging technology options.
"It's critically important to evaluate what kind of experience you want in your store," Nikki Baird, managing partner for Retail Systems Research, told attendees during the panel. "The key differentiator [for physical retail] is the employee in the store. You don't get that on an app. You have to look really hard at the intangibles."
Amazon Go seems cool and futuristic in theory, but it hasn't been without some problems.
In March, Amazon indefinitely delayed the store's opening when problems surfaced with Go's sensor-based check-out system. It wasn't working well when there were about two dozen shoppers in the store.
That's a situation that begs for store associates to be present to deal with hiccups.
"You have to look at it as a give and take," David Hewitt, group vice president of the consumer experience at SapientRazorfish, told attendees. "If you can take the cashier off the register, you can add them to the sales floor.
"Some QSRs look at the cashier area as a bottleneck. When you look at self-service, you can drive a higher ticket. The best line is a quick line but it has to relate to your concept."
In theory, the concept of a cashierless environment could work well in most retail environments.
Now that Amazon has received clearance from the FTC to acquire Whole Foods, we might soon see the Go concept put more into practice on a wider scale.
Walmart obviously sees value in the idea with its Scan & Go app.
In the QSR industry, Panera leads the pack with self-checkout options that include kiosks in-store and mobile order-ahead in its app.
The question then becomes, how does that merchant best match their customers to this emerging technology?
"Changing behavior is very difficult," Hewitt said. "You look for those moments where there are mental shifts [in behavior].
"Look at all those little moments across the journey. You might drive awareness in one place to reduce friction in another pace."
Amazon and Walmart might be able to quickly change a tech-savvy customer's checkout habits, but will that alienate others?
"If they are not an existing customer, how do you get them comfortable with using that checkout option?," Baird said. "How do I get new people that walk into the door to use it. Am I creating anxiety or creating a good experience?"
Of course, in order to create a good experience, the technology has to work.
The aforementioned Amazon Go could quickly create anxiety for anyone, even the most tech-savvy among us.
Hewitt suggests retailers experiment with a single store before rolling out such technology on a wider scale.
"Is Amazon now going into Whole Food to deploy it at a system-wide level?" he said. "Created a guinea pig of a store first and be ready to disrupt operations. Then, you can ask the question about scale."
Will Hernandez Will Hernandez has 14 years of experience ranging from newspapers to wire services and trade publications. Before becoming Editor of MobilePaymentsToday.com, he spent two years as the content manager for PaymentsJournal.com, a leading payments industry news aggregator and information hub published by Mercator Advisory Group. Will spent four years covering the payments industry as an associate editor for multiple publications in SourceMedia's Payments Group based in Chicago.