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Can Tech Automated Stores Ever Become Mainstream in the UK?

The idea of machines taking over jobs which previously required human involvement is hundreds of years old, dating back to 19th Century, when Luddites smashed factory machinery to protest against the automation of their work. But technology continues to offer opportunities for business to cut costs and increase efficiency by removing the human element, and tech automated stores in Asia are the latest example to hit the headlines. Can they ever be more than a gimmick and truly gain traction in the UK though?

The History Of Automated Stores

On a basic level, automated stores began with the birth of vending machines, which allowed consumers to purchase a select range of items without the need for assistance from a shop worker. These date back to the late 19th Century and have become complex enough to allow for the purchase of items such as DVDs, hot food and even marijuana.

The first real attempt at an automated store was in Memphis in 1939 when Clarence Saunders opened Keedoozle. The products on offer were stored in glass cases and could be selected by creating a tickertape list that went into a machine that would send the ordered products down a conveyor belt to the waiting customer. Except it didn’t work very well and only lasted ten years.

Many years later in the same American city, Mike Rivalto began working on tech automated stores in the mid-1980s, inspired by his wife’s complaints about long queues at their local convenience store. It was a labour of love for Rivalto that took him until 2003 to achieve, when he launched SmartMart, a drive through store with a touch screen ordering system.

In 2015, Shop24 was launched in the United States, acting as a cross between a convenience store and a really big vending machine, offering a wider range – up to 300 items – of products than a regular vending machine with full automation. Over in the UK, a similar store was opened in Clifton in Derbyshire, the Clifton SpeedyShop, which was also a super-sized vending machine that was launched to provide the village with a local corner shop, which it had been lacking for over a decade.

Whatever form these early tech automated stores came in, they always had the same aim in mind: like Micro Moments of the digital age, it’s all about making the purchase journey faster and more convenient for the consumer.

The Next Big Steps

However, all of these stores had one thing in common, which is that they kept the customers on the outside, using technology to serve them the items they have selected using a touch screen. It’s a very different experience to what we’re used to in a real shop, where we can go in, browse and pick the items we want (along with anything the store has been able to upsell to us). However, more tacticle and interactive automated stores are coming.

Unsurprisingly, Amazon is at the forefront of the new technology, launching its first Amazon Go store in Seattle last December. However, that was just a beta launch for employees only and hasn’t been without its technical hitches, with the systems failing to cope with more than 20 shoppers at a time. This has delayed the actual opening to the public, but Amazon has still filed trademark claims for its Go slogans in the UK, so we could yet see them coming here.

The concept behind the store is that customers enter by signing into their Amazon accounts. They are then tracked through the aisles, and everything they pick up is added to their online basket, with Amazon charging them when they leave the store, meaning that there’s no need for queuing at the checkouts, as there aren’t any. This of course means that human staff aren’t required for selling the products, though they are needed for restocking and cleaning and maintenance.

Amazon isn’t the first business to open this kind of store though, with Swedish IT specialist Robert Ilijason opening a fully-automated retail store in Viken in February 2016, inspired by the need for 24/7 stores that could serve customers without needing staff. It operates using a smartphone app that allows customers into the store and tracks what they buy, charging them for it and discouraging thefts by ensuring that it would very difficult to get away with it.

The latest store to hit the headlines has been the BingoBox in China, which launched in the last few months and operates in the same way as Illijason’s store, letting customers in only after they have registered their details. It’s still a startup with big plans rather than the resources to already make them a reality, but it has achieved what Amazon hasn’t yet, in that it has opened its store to the public, and it’s likely it’ll only get bigger.

“We have built a team of artificial intelligence experts to research and develop technologies including product recognition and sorting algorithms. Currently, the technology has successfully recognized over 200 types of products,” said Chen Zilin, Bingobox founder and CEO. Meanwhile, on the threat of tech automated stores taking jobs away from human beings, Amazon Go’s spokeswoman insisted that won’t be a problem.

“Amazon Go associates work in both the kitchen and the store, prepping ingredients, making breakfast, lunch, and dinner items, greeting customers at the door, stocking shelves, offering product samples, and helping customers,” she told Tech Wire Asia. Indeed, just as there is still a need for human intuition and problem-solving in driverless cars, tech automated stores will still require at least some human staff to work.

Where Next?

The technology is clearly there to run fully automated stores, but as yet there are only a handful of convenience stores and oversized vending machines, so will we ever see them become mainstream in the UK? Much of the answer to this depends on whether Amazon can make its Go store concept workable, as it may well take a major player like that to invest the time and money to make it a success rather than another Keedoozle.

Could the technology ever be used for other types of retail apart from convenience stores? Could you combine tech automated stores and fashion to allow customers to buy clothing without the added pressure of staff watching and judging? In Japan there are mobile stores staffed by robots, but yet British supermarkets are full of customers floundering angrily at self-service checkouts, so there is clearly still some way to go before we are ready for mainstream automation to replace more traditional shops.

What do you think of tech automated stores? Do you think they can work in the UK? Let us know your thoughts over on Twitter @mporiumgroup

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