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Free cash register: are sellers needed in the age of technology

The pandemic has accelerated the retail revolution by pushing businesses towards technological advancements in retail outlets. In the food segment, the demand for fast and secure shopping has led to the growth of online services, the replacement of traditional checkouts with self-service terminals, and the automation of key business processes. The change has inevitably influenced the traditional approach to hiring line personnel. But does this mean that cashiers will disappear from stores in the era of total digitalization?

Mikhail Gleba, CTO of IXR - a developer, integrator, manufacturer and supplier of complex digital solutions for retail.

For more than a year now, we have been closely monitoring the behavior of consumers, who increasingly shop remotely. In the coming years, according to the forecasts of the Ministry of Industry and Trade, the segment of the Russian online trade will almost double and amount to about 15% of the retail volume.

Businesses are adapting to these trends, coming up with new ways to lure shoppers offline. Grocery retail is the fastest to respond to changes, which in the face of fierce competition offers its audience modern concepts of stores with bakeries, check-in terminals, self-checkout counters and even coworking spaces (#naletu).

Over the past year, it is the self-checkout counters that have become the driver of changes in retail, since they allow solving one of the main pains of the buyer - long waiting in line. 60% of the surveyed respondents face this problem. Customers value their time, so they want to shop quickly and easily - just like online.

Self-checkout counters allow retailers to unload queues at a point of sale of any format. In place of one ordinary checkout in a small store, you can place 3-4 terminals, in a supermarket - up to 6-8, which can be constantly loaded by at least 50%. Thus, the technology adds bandwidth and attracts new customers.

Judging by the data of Russian retailers, such services are in demand: self-service checkouts are used by 20-50% of visitors in different regions. The networks plan to further expand their terminal service areas. Thus, X5 Group has already announced its plans to additionally install 10 thousand CSR.

Foreign practice

Abroad, interest in digitalization of offline retail is also growing against the background of an alarming epidemiological situation. More than half of consumers are ready to choose purchases without the participation of a cashier. For business, the benefits of installing terminals are associated primarily with the optimal use of rental space, as well as with a more targeted impact on the buyer, strengthening brand loyalty and collecting feedback.

On the other hand, the business gains benefits in terms of optimizing the costs of line personnel. When replacing one traditional checkout counter, the seller moves to the assistant level, which serves the entire self-service checkout area at once. When replacing two regular cash lines, an extra staff unit is released. And here one more problem is solved: the business does not need to hire more employees or increase the number of their shifts. In the long term, retail chains can save on payroll for line personnel.

But not all retailers see the benefits of installing self-checkouts. In the US, one of the consumer cooperatives PCC Community Markets removed all terminals after learning more about the preferences of its consumers. According to their research, the use of technologies such as self-service systems does not create the human connections and interactions that make the shopping experience unique.

Another obstacle in the digitalization process can be conservatism or unwillingness to change established habits. For example, in Germany, the adoption of new technologies in retail is slower than in neighboring countries. The main reason for this is the reluctance of Germans to use cards, preferring cash. Despite the fact that hypermarket chains REWE and Kaufman are already using self-service technologies, some German retailers are very cautious about investing in CSR, as this could endanger the jobs of cashiers.

However, the situation on the world market is now exactly the opposite: retail trade is experiencing a labor shortage. It is worth noting Japan, for which automation has become the only solution to replace missing personnel with fully autonomous kiosks and vending machines. In America, staff shortages are openly discussed. More than 900 thousand vacancies are now open. Local retailers are trying to lure candidates with higher wages and improved benefits. But the crisis has not yet passed. Does this mean that in the future more and more stores will operate without sellers?

Some retailers are already ready for such a bold step. Walmart plans to move to a full-fledged self-service scheme by the end of 2021. According to the retailer, this solution will not only save on staff, but also speed up the process of ordering for customers, giving them more choice and control over purchases. American market research confirms consumer interest in self-sufficiency: 46% of respondents aged 18 to 34 would prefer to use a self-checkout counter.

According to another Piplsay study, almost 90% of store buyers without Amazon Go sellers are happy with a visit and want to see similar formats close to their homes.

In Poland, interest in introducing self-checkouts in retail increased after the ban on the operation of retail outlets on Sundays in 2018. Entrepreneurs realized that if sellers were not allowed to work, then self-checkouts could work for them. At the same time, 2020 one way or another spurred the country's largest networks to install more terminals in order to reduce the load on cashiers.