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Is the jury out on cashierless stores?
Autonomous retail stores have been springing up around the Gulf
This month sees a new cashierless retail store open in the GCC, this time in the State of Qatar. Al Meera Smart, the country's first fully autonomous checkout-free store, will open in Aspire Park in Qatar after several months of testing. The cashierless store was developed by Al Meera Consumer Goods Company and San Francisco retail technology startup Zippin, working with the Commercial Bank of Qatar to create a frictionless payment experience. The new store follows the opening of a number of cashierless stores in Oman and the United Arab Emirates launched by different brands over the past couple of years. And it won't be the last.
Automated retail stores promise a convenient, personalised and frictionless experience for consumers, with often 24-hour service. For brick-and-mortar retailers, the autonomous stores not only require very little supervision, they offer a wealth of data on consumers and their shopping habits. So, given the footfall one could expect from a busy convenience store, retailers have the opportunity to acquire a volume of consumer data in a short space of time.
Here's a quick recap of cashierless store opens in the region:
Majid Al Futtaim opened its Carrefour City+ cashierless store at Dubai's Mall of the Emirates in September 2021. The group worked with California-based store automation specialists AiFi Inc. to use its real-time image recognition platform for the store. Store access and shopping payment was originally enabled via the MAF Carrefour App, but the payment infrastructure was updated last year to allow payment via credit card and so reduce complexity for customers. The system automatically tracks items picked off the shelves by shoppers, adding them to a digital shopping basket. Shoppers are then checkedout on exit.
Later the same year, in November 2021, the UAE’s largest fuel station convenience retailer, ADNOC Distribution, opened a fully autonomous store at ADNOC’s Sheikh Khalifa Energy Complex in Abu Dhabi. ADNOC's technology partner for developing the ADNOC Oasis store was another California startup, AWM Smart Shelf. Shoppers at the store enter the store with a bank card, an Emirates ID, or scan a QR code. Purchases are tracked by the smart shelf system and payment is automatically deducted after the customers leave the store.
Oman joined the region's autonomous store club a few months later, with Omani Oil Marketing Company opening its first autonomous Ahlain convenience store at Omantel headquarters in Madinat al Irfan, in the country's capital area. Shoppers are first required to download Omantel's E-Dukkan app and set it up with their bank details. The smart store then automatically detects items picked by shoppers and charges them on exiting the store.
The stores in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Muscat have now been in operation for 12 months or more and so will have at least 12 months of data on consumer purchasing, behaviours and habits. So, it is curious that none of the retail operators have announced plans for any further cashierless stores.
Globally, autonomous stores have not been an instant smash hit. In the United Kingdom, supermarket giant Sainsbury's opened a pilot cashierless grocery store in 2019 in central London, only to close the trial three months later. At the end of 2021, Sainsbury's tried again, opening a new SmartShop Pick & Go using Amazon's Amazon's Just Walk Out Shopping technology. Nearby, Sainsbury's competitor Tesco opened its own checkout-free store 'GetGo' a few months earlier, powered by technology from the Israeli company Trigo. Meanwhile, Amazon Go also opened its first UK store in London during 2021.
The truth is likely that autonomous retail stores are going to take a while to become commonplace around the region and will take more time to win over shoppers. From an operator point of view, if you're organisation runs hundreds of stores and services hundreds of thousands of customers, a cashierless convenience store may not be your top priority.
Updated 13 January 2023
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