As long as retail has existed, so have queues. But technology is trying to put an end to the wait.
And throughout retail history queue-busting initiatives have moved the dial in customer experience, from the introduction of self-service in the 1950s – where customers could touch and hold items before deciding to buy them – to self-checkouts in the early noughties.
But lining up at the till – or the self-checkout, where queues frequently build – remains one of the big customer friction points in retail.
Research by customer experience management specialist Qudini found that waiting in line was the top frustration for in-store customers.
It was cited by 51% of consumers surveyed, beating rude and unhelpful staff, and poor availability.
So it is no surprise that, as retailers seek to enhance their appeal and reflect a pace of life lived at Snapchat speed, the reduction or elimination of queues is a high priority.
51% of consumers surveyed cite queues as their top frustration in-store
Research by Qudini
From cashierless shops to slicker click-and-collect processes, via halfway houses such as scan and go, a wide range of initiatives are under way to create smoother experiences for shoppers.
The most dramatic development so far has been the launch at the start of this year of the first Amazon Go store in the online giant’s hometown of Seattle, and similar ventures in China by tech powerhouses such as Alibaba.
“No lines. No checkouts. No, seriously,” was the marketing tagline deployed at the launch of Amazon Go.
The store utilises technology such as computer vision and sensor fusion, and links to shoppers’ smartphones so that they are able simply to take what they want and leave.
In China, Alibaba has showcased TaoCafe, a similar model. An accompanying video runs through all sorts of potential occasions for mishaps to demonstrate the accuracy and power of its technology.
While UK retailers may not yet have made such dramatic strides, attempts are in progress to deliver similar capabilities.
Attune head of retail Richard Emmott believes they are right to do so. He says: “As ecommerce has become more important then, like Amazon Go, why have a queue at all?
“If you’re going to prove technology can deliver, why not go the whole hog? Amazon Go has been brave and opened us up to possibility.”
Bhavesh Unadkat, Capgemini Consulting’s principal consultant for retail customer engagement, thinks the debut of Amazon Go will galvanise other retailers to turbo-charge their efforts and move on from scan and go, which is a less seamless process that typically still involves a checkout.
He says: “I think it [scan and go] is a decent process but still feels clunky – one that will be enjoyed by the digital newbie, but probably not one that will be adopted by the digital native.”
“If you’re going to prove technology can deliver, why not go the whole hog? Amazon Go has been brave and opened us up to possibility”
Richard Emmott, Attune
Scan and go allows shoppers to scan items, pack them straight into their bags and pay at the end without unpacking at the checkout.
It has been adopted by many UK supermarkets, such as Waitrose, Tesco and Sainsbury’s.
Tellingly, however, US grocery titan Walmart this week revealed it is scrapping its scan-and-go technology due to “low participation”.
The Co-op is one example of a grocer testing smartphone pay-in-the-aisle technology, enabling customers to avoid waiting at the till altogether.
A pilot, in partnership with Mastercard, has been running at the Co-op’s Manchester head office, and roll-out to the public is thought to be imminent.
“It’s receiving very positive feedback and helping to reduce queue times, and is proving popular with meal deal customers,” a spokesman said.
In convenience grocery, of course, a good customer experience means the ability to get in, get what you want and get out fast.
The rise of click and collect
In other types of retail, the queuing challenges may be different.
As click and collect grows, for instance, what was designed to be a convenient service may now also be plagued by lengthy waiting times.
However, Qudini co-founder and chief executive Imogen Wethered – who will speak on a panel of retail disruptors at Tech. powered by Retail Week – says fresh perspectives can be brought to queuing.
“There are other ways you can wait,” she observes. These ways of waiting can enhance, rather than diminish, customer experience.
Qudini has worked with Ikea’s small-format stores, such as at Westfield Stratford, where the proposition is built around the collection of ordered products.
At first, when customers came to collect their goods, staff had to leave the store desk to go to the warehouse, which impacted productivity and increased shopper waiting times.
Customers had already had to queue at the desk in the first place, and while doing so they could not browse or have coffee and cake in the cafe.
Now, when collecting, they can check-in using a kiosk or through tablets carried by staff. Warehouse staff are then notified upon check-in and can organise the order.
“Click and collect will continue to grow, customers will no longer accept queuing to collect and this will be detrimental to the retailer, so should not be taken lightly”
Bhavesh Unadkat, Capgemini Consulting
Customers are kept up to date with progress by SMS, enabling them to browse or pop into the cafe while they wait.
A survey showed that 70% of customers browsed the store while waiting and 24% said they made an additional purchase as a result.
Unadkat says: “Click and collect will continue to grow, customers will no longer accept queuing to collect and this will be detrimental to the retailer, so should not be taken lightly.
“We will see a number of innovations over the coming years from simple process changes, like having designated collection points, to the full spectrum of self-service collections and automated identification.
“One size will not fit all customers’ needs, so retailers need to ensure they are delivering the right solutions for their different customers and telling them when they have done it.
“The number of times I have seen retailers doing cool things that I have stumbled upon shows retailers need to make us more aware.”
The death of the till
In the wider retail context, queue-busting technology also brings new opportunity.
For example, through its Accelerate start-up incubator programme, shopping centre group Intu experimented with the WoraPay app.
This enabled customers at the Trafford Centre to order and pay for food and drink in the centre’s cafes on their phones while shopping, and then collect them when they were ready.
The test provided valuable insight into the consumer appeal of queue-busting technology and, in future, more new technology will influence how people pay.
Intu Digital managing director Karen Harris also points to the possibilities opened up by AI, drawing together data using everything from in-store cameras to weather forecasts to predict when queues will form and adapt appropriately.
“Others will replicate Amazon – and some might do it better”
Imogen Wethered, Qudini
And, while today the smartphone is the product at the heart of consumers’ digital lives, in a few years’ time it could be something else entirely – smart glasses for instance.
Harris can envisage a time when “you won’t ever need to go near a till”.
Emmott talks in similar terms. “The way I see the future going is less the checkout and more the fulfilment,” he says.
“I like some of the things Farfetch is doing [with the Browns store]. Even the magic mirror has got a bit more magical – you can reorder something that’s a bit too big and a customer assistant can bring it to the changing room one size down.”
Wethered believes that Amazon’s pioneering approach will motivate other retailers. She says: “Others will replicate it – and some might do it better.”
The gauntlet has been thrown down and the retail race to be at the front of the queue is only likely to gather pace.
Exclusive deals on Tech. tickets – this week only!
Customer experience and payment are two key themes of Tech.
Bringing together more than 2,000 people from across the entire retail ecosystem, Tech. is the biggest, boldest and best event for digital leaders and the smartest minds in technology to shape the future of the industry.
Look out for exclusive deals on tickets – this week only – and book before prices go up this Friday. Find out more by visiting tech.retail-week.com