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What does it mean to be a retailer, asks Amazon…again

You may have heard of Amazon – a huge server business with a nice sideline in retail.

Once again, they are forcing retailers to think again about what it really means to be a retailer, with news that there will be no checkouts in its Seattle store. Customers (Amazon employees only in the trial) simply tap their phones to check in in the same way as they would online, and they can walk out with their shopping.

This must be pretty annoying to all those retailers and tech companies that have been experimenting with rapid automatic checkout for the last 25 years. Millions of dollars, a queue of clunky solutions, and along comes Amazon making it look easy – although it has been in development since 2012.

The point is, even if it doesn’t work and non-checkout doesn’t take off (and that’s not my subject today) other retailers must learn a painful and immediate lesson. Can they identify their customers when they come into their stores in the same simple way Amazon can? No of course they can’t, which is another reminder of the huge hole in almost all retailers’ omnichannel strategies. What happens online stays online.

It will be interesting to see how retailers respond to Amazon’s assault on the checkout. Most will ignore it, because they have no choice – consider how much money, tech and new processes they would have to throw at it to pull it off. Impossible.

Some will go looking for ready to roll solutions to see if they can get it done quickly and cheaply. They can’t – there aren’t any, plus the existing POS systems would have to integrate with non-checkout, and no one has cracked that problem yet.

The only way retailers can respond is to talk to their customers. Now there’s a radical idea for some, who currently spend all their time optimising website performance, designing amazing promotions, merchandising for maximum returns in store, but not actually checking in with shoppers. Let’s find out from them how they feel about friction at the checkout.

I genuinely hope retailers will call me up and tell me off for saying this. But we need to have a conversation about how the customer must be allowed to manage their own shopping journeys. I hazard a guess that they will vote for an Amazon Go style experience. First Brexit, then Trump, next non-checkout.


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