Andy Crouch - Code, Technology & Obfuscation ...

Online vs Offline Shopping

Woman Looking At Food On Market Stall

Photo: Unsplash

This is a very opinionated piece. If I offend I do not mean to but you have been warned.

The high street as we know it will not survive.

The writing has been on the wall for a long time. But, I still hear people moaning about the impact that technology is having on the sector. How shops are not as good as they used to be and how they are more expensive and how few of them there are.

I hate shopping and I am a technologist. I am probably the worst person to comment on this. I love the way that technology has opened up choice and reduced cost. As a consumer, they are the two most important factors when I need to shop. Online retailers get that by:

  • Not having a physical presence on the high street. They limit themselves to warehouses (which are mostly automated as far as they can be). This reduces overheads.

  • They are (mostly) cheaper than the high street. Reduced overheads, bulk buying and automation all lead to savings for the customer.

  • They are available 24/7. I can shop when I want or need to. I am not limited by retailers opening hours. (Which in the UK is still governed by the church. Really, people, it is a 24/7 economy in 2018!)

No matter how much high street retailers can buy in bulk, they do not automate and they have overheads. Those overheads are for staff and premises. I am surprised that none of the big UK supermarkets has experimented with Robotics. This appears to be the answer to the staff issue. Automate the restocking process and having self-serve tills would reduce their wages bill. I am not convinced that they would actually pass on the savings to customers. I am sure the shareholders would have something to say about that. They are always looking at the short term annual profit rather than longer-term survival.

The Self service tills are a good case in point. All UK Supermarkets and a lot of the high street shops now offer them. They allow a customer to take their purchases to a till to scan and pay for them. They have been going in one form or another in the UK for about 10 years and they are still awful. I mean they really suck. If I was the designer of these things I would cringe that I made them so bad. They are slow, prone to go wrong and panic. As soon as it is not possible to determine what needs to be done it summons a human. They are unable to verify for age restrictions and so most shops have to have a cashier on hand per 4 self-serve tills. That’s right, someone designed a solution to cashiers and it still requires a cashier. Let that sink in.

The other point worth considering on self-serving tills is that you do not save money as a customer. The company makes you scan your own goods. They effectively making you a cashier for the duration of the transaction. Yet who profits? Not the consumer but the retailer. Even though they do not pay someone to help complete your transaction you still save no money. Again, let that sink in.

I have a lot more to say about choice and cost but this piece is turning into a rant which was not it’s purpose.

Next to choice and price, I and a lot of other shoppers value time. Time is limited for people. They would prefer to spend it when not working with their families and friends. Here also retailers get it so very wrong. Why on a Tuesday night at 6 pm do they have only 3 tills open (out of 24)? Their overheads once again. Evening pay is more expensive than during the day.

The trouble is that no one has looked to change things from within the industry. It is taking Amazon to rethink the shopping experience. A technology company. Their shop in Seattle has no cashiers and no tills. That’s right. You walk in with an app on your phone and pick up what you want and walk out. Your goods are just charged to your Amazon account. No time wasted waiting, No trying to ensure a badly designed machine is weighing your cookies right. Just in and out. I know of at least 3 UK supermarkets that are working on similar technology. But, I wonder whether their extended technology development cycles will be their downfall. Will Amazon make it’s expected entry into the UK market? Will it just be what we have all been waiting for?

I know it will be for me.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on retail and the impact that technology is having. Please share them with me via twitter or email.