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Some people love them, some people hate them – and this past year, for some reason, we’ve heard an awful lot from both sides about self-checkouts. But one retailer is looking to end the endless debate, by installing new and improved self-checkouts that it says are simply “magic.”

It’s happening at the British grocery chain Tesco – and, as always, for anyone who thinks what happens in the UK doesn’t apply to them, it’s an experiment that could show up at a store near you if it proves successful over there.

The new “scan-free technology” that Tesco is testing at a store in London sounds similar at first to Amazon’s “Just Walk Out” system, but with some key differences. Both rely on in-store cameras to watch what you take off the shelves, so you can check out without having to scan each item at a register. What’s unique about Tesco’s system, the retailer says, is that it’s completely anonymous.

At an Amazon Go or Amazon Fresh grocery store, you need to check in with your Amazon account, by scanning the app or a linked credit card, so the store will know just who you are from the moment you walk in until the moment you leave. Tesco’s version doesn’t require you to check in at all. The cameras don’t recognize you, instead assigning you a “stick figure” avatar as you do your shopping. Then the system uses a combination of weight sensors that detect when something is removed from a shelf, and cameras detecting whether you’ve put the item in your basket or cart.

Once you’re done shopping, you head to a self-checkout, where the “magic” happens – you just walk up to a screen, and the system will instantly display all of the items you’ve selected, without having to take them out and scan them one-by-one. You just verify that everything’s correct – or ask for assistance if something doesn’t look right – pay, and you’re on your way.

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“This is about cutting out some of the challenges around scanning,” Sarah Quiggin, Tesco’s head of store customer experience, told the Sunday Times. “Sometimes there can be issues with certain barcodes and products. The alert for an ‘unexpected item in the bagging area’ is a classic one that customers get frustrated about, understandably.” With the no-scan system, “you turn up to the checkout and you pay,” and that’s it.

It’s the scanning part of traditional self-checkouts, after all, that’s the biggest pain point for shoppers and retailers alike. Some retailers like Walmart and Dollar General have scaled back self-checkouts in certain stores, in part to avoid frustrating shoppers and in part to help avoid problems like coupon fraud and theft that are harder to pull off at a staffed checkout lane. Other retailers like Target and ShopRite have imposed item limits at self-checkout stations in order to speed things along and ensure that larger, more complicated orders are handled by cashiers.

Changes like those have prompted a whole lot of self-checkout media coverage recently. But no one can seem to agree whether it means self-checkout as we know it is doomed, or if it’s just undergoing a recalibration. A recent article in the Atlantic declared self-checkout to be “a failed experiment,” while an Associated Press article insisted that “self-checkout is here to stay.”

The CEO of Food Lion and Stop & Shop owner Ahold Delhaize is a proponent of the “here to stay” argument. “From a cost perspective, the savings on labor costs are higher than the potential downsides,” Frans Muller told Fortune. “Some shoppers have smaller baskets, so they don’t have to wait in line, and it’s convenient. A lot of elderly shoppers find it fun, and they have time for it.”

And it could be even more fun and convenient if you didn’t have to stop at a self-checkout, pull out each item and scan them individually at all. If Tesco’s new system catches on, with any luck, it just might resolve the self-checkout debate once and for all.

Image source: Tesco

2 Comments

  1. I’m surprised none of the supermarkets has tested offering a small discount (say 2 or 3%) for self checkout to see if this results in a lot more shoppers using self checkout.

  2. ok, so if they are saving high labor costs by not having checkers are the savings coming back to the consumer in lower prices of products?? I for one, is a senior, and if I have to check myself out either I want to be paid or show me discounts and lower costs!

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