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Are unmanned stores a step too far for UK retail asks Stuart Geekie of HMY

The concept of unmanned shops and stores, in which customers self-serve in a retail environment that is typically unmanned, has been gaining momentum since 2016, with China leading the march on mass roll out and Amazon Go rumoured to be opening 3,000 stores by 2021.

Whilst there are many major players taking on the Asian market, and Amazon looks set to dominate in the USA, so far the UK seems reluctant to follow suit.

On the whole, the concept of unmanned retail isn’t new - think vending machines and, more recently, self-service tills. What has entered new ground is the technology which is allowing retailers to leave customers free to roam their shops, choose goods and walk out – all without interacting with a member of staff. But could the same technology that is galvanising the unmanned movement, also be holding it back?

Amazon Go announced its unmanned concept back in 2016 but it wasn’t until January 2018 that the vision became a reality thanks to the sophistication of the technology required. Today its first store, based on the ground floor of its HQ in Seattle, is said to mainly be frequented by tourists and Amazon employees.

Shoppers must download an app, which is linked to their Amazon account and bank card, to enter the store. They then select the goods they want and simply walk out. A combination of cameras, AI and motion sensors then tracks the shoppers’ every move to determine what they purchased and how much they should be charged.

In China, the unmanned shopping concept is further ahead of the curve in terms of mass roll out with technology including QR codes, facial recognition technology, cameras, scanners and sensors all being implemented to create what could be the future of retail.

So far, so good – but what about the privacy issues that come with being subjected to so much surveillance and tracking? One of the reasons given for the UK’s reluctance to embrace the unmanned phenomenon is just that – consumer concerns for their personal data and the invasion of privacy required to simply pick up a pint of milk without the need for human interaction.

Of course retailers using CCTV cameras to monitor their premises is not a new thing, but in recent years the use of facial recognition as a tool for crime prevention has raised some serious moral questions about invasion of privacy, making many feel uneasy.

So if retailers in the UK aren’t about to exchange their workforce for the latest motion sensors and facial recognition technology, how can they bridge that gap by offering their customers a frictionless experience which embraces digital innovation?

One thing we have seen with the rise of the online shopping experience is a customer reliance on technology vs. human interaction. People are used to searching for answers in the palm of their hand and base their purchasing decisions on reviews, recommendations and a seamless online journey.

At HMY we have been bringing this model into the physical retail space, using digital innovation to assist in an in-store purchasing decision. An example of this is the use of touchscreens which help a customer pick out a fragrance or make-up item, lighting up the shelves instore to help guide them to the product.

So while the retail experience isn’t void of human interaction, the in-store experience is supporting the changing behaviours of today’s shopper something which retailers of all sectors need to fully embrace.

Time will tell if unmanned shopping is fully embraced on a global scale, however what is exciting is the opportunity that new technology is giving retailers to fully digitalise their experience in store.

Stuart Geekie is managing director at HMY Group