Holiday Shopping Minus Checkout Lines Is Finally Here

Retailers are still trying to keep pace with Amazon

Walmart wants to save holiday shoppers from checkout lines. Walmart
Headshot of Lisa Lacy

Retail’s elimination of the checkout line has gained momentum all year long, and the 2018 holiday season is shaping up to be the time it truly goes mainstream.

Once again, we can thank Amazon—at least in the U.S.—for blazing this trail for most retailers.

In January, Amazon opened its first cashierless Amazon Go in Seattle. It has since expanded the tech to Chicago and San Francisco—and thus, arguably, has inspired retailers like 7-Eleven and Sam’s Club to follow suit. (And it’s why startups like Standard Cognition, Trigo Vision and Zippin are hot on their heels.)

Waiting in line is one of the major drawbacks of brick-and-mortar shopping—and one of the reasons ecommerce holds so much appeal for so many consumers. (A Pew Research Center study found that, as of 2016, 80 percent of Americans do at least some online shopping.)

Jeff Malmad, executive director and lead of media agency Mindshare’s data-focused unit Shop+, described standing in long lines as a “killer for retailer.”

“When it’s hot, it’s slow and the person right in front of you is either buying a lot of things or returning a lot of things, it makes you think, ‘Why didn’t I just buy this online?’”
-Jeff Malmad, executive director and lead of Mindshare's Shop+

“When it’s hot, it’s slow and the person right in front of you is either buying a lot of things or returning a lot of things, it makes you think, ‘Why didn’t I just buy this online?’” he explained. “That’s why the best marketing for a lot of brick-and-mortar retailers is making things easy and frictionless for consumers.”

This push for convenience in physical retail is also why stores have added click-and-collect options, he added.

But the allure of shopping from your couch in pajamas is particularly strong during a time of year when stampedes of crazed bargain hunters have resulted in human casualties.

Where Amazon Go(es), everyone else follows

Or, as Daniel Murphy, svp and director of digital production and operations at advertising, design and digital agency Deutsch NY, put it: “Amazon certainly fired the shot across the bow for all brick-and-mortar retailers.”

Look no further than Walmart, Target and Macy’s.

Walmart is trying to lure Black Friday shoppers with 4 million cups of coffee and “nearly 2 million” Christmas cookies (which, to be fair, you can’t instantaneously get online). To make navigating stores easier, it added a map feature to its app that will highlight where to find the “top eight Black Friday deals.”

Special ‘Check Out With Me’ associates will be on hand wearing bright yellow sashes like retail pageant queens in “key areas of the store.” That means—in theory, at least—that, after you’ve wrestled rival parents to the ground to get the last Poopsie Slime Surprise Unicorn for your darling babe, you can skip the traditional checkout line and pay right there in the aisle, if you can find a yellow sash.

Meanwhile, Target dubbed itself “America’s easiest place to shop.” It will also have in-app store maps that highlight deals, allow shoppers to check out via associates and, like Walmart and Amazon, offer free two-day shipping. (But Target also boasts same-day delivery in 46 states and a Drive Up service in nearly 1000 stores.)

Target employees will also have handheld devices for checkout from anywhere in the store, though they will mainly be in the busiest areas during peak events like Black Friday. Staffers simply scan items and accept payment by credit card. (One potential challenge with this, however, is consumers may be less likely to wander aisles if an associate checks them out before they get to the front of the store, Malmad added.)

Macy’s, meanwhile, will actually allow holiday shoppers to check themselves out via the Scan & Pay feature on its app, but they will still have to go to designated kiosks to get security sensors removed.

So, unlike options from Amazon and Amazon Go, you still have to deal with a person at Walmart, Target and Macy’s.

The journey to true checkout-less shopping

To be fair, most of the truly checkout-less executions available now are focused on goods you’d find at a convenience store. And they’re pretty small spaces. Macy’s president Hal Lawton pointed this out at an event earlier this year in which he observed Macy’s stores have multiple levels and many entrances and exits, in addition to dressing rooms and escalators, so it’s a completely different challenge. (And Wired reported clothing is difficult for checkout-free systems as it is “too floppy,” so cameras and shelves have a hard time figuring out what’s what.)

Joanne Joliet, research director at Gartner, noted these holiday payment options aren’t checkout-less, but rather mark a migration of checkout to the store floor to create a better experience (like reducing wait times) and increase conversions.

“These retailers aren’t competing with Amazon Go in product or geography, but recognize the importance of serving the customer well,” she added.

That’s true, but cashierless tech will, in all likelihood, evolve beyond snacks and drinks sooner or later.

“Much like smartphone adoption, this tech will seem futuristic for about a year and then simply table stakes for [real-life] shopping,” Murphy said.

“What will be interesting is to see how easily these retailers will handle returns.”
-Joanne Joliet, research director at Gartner, on retailers using cashierless tech

In part, that’s because consumer expectations about convenience—which can perhaps be traced back to another Amazon innovation: free two-day shipping for Prime members—are only getting higher.

And while Joliet said expedited checkout is important, she said retailers shouldn’t forget that convenient returns should be part of the entire experience.

“What will be interesting is to see how easily these retailers will handle returns,” she said. “Walmart has initiated a smoother return process, which begins online and allows the product to be returned to the store with the goal for this to take less than a minute for customers.”

@lisalacy Lisa Lacy is a senior writer at Adweek, where she focuses on retail and the growing reach of Amazon.