The Automated C-Store

By Carter Hammett

With the recent introduction of unmanned retail outlets like Amazon Go, automation and robotics are ushering in a whole new era for retail.

When Amazon Go launched its first cashier-free convenience store in Seattle back in 2016, many thought it spelled the death of the convenience store as we know it.

That might sound a little extreme but think about it: Vending machines have been in use for decades. Most gas stations use pay-at-the-pump technology. Many big box retailers ranging from Sobey’s to Shopper’s Drug Mart to Canadian Tire are using self-checkout technology to reduce wait times in checkout lines. Heck, even libraries are starting to get into the act. Slowly and gradually, more and more automated concepts are being introduced into the Canadian c-store environment. Some pundits see this as the beginning of a step toward complete automation.

Not so fast says Trend Spotter Consulting’s Marion Chan. “I think automation’s coming whether we like it or not,” she says. “It’s still light years away but Canadians are resistant to that kind of change and are still not onboard with it yet.”

They won’t have a choice. Early last year the C.D. Howe Institute released a study, Risk and Readiness: The Impact of Automation on Provincial Labour Markets. In it, author Rosalie Wyonch determines the readiness of workers to adapt to AI and technological shifts on a province-by-province basis.

Not surprisingly, provinces with greater economic diversification like Ontario, Alberta and B.C. fared well, in part because, says Wyonch, “occupations that require low levels of adaptation in the tasks performed and do not require subtle human interactions—for example, bookkeepers, motor vehicle assemblers and services station attendants—are easier to automate. The provinces most susceptible to technological change include workers living in Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Newfoundland.

In principle, occupations with high skill requirements where humans still outperform computers, are impossible to automate,

says Wyonch.

For the uninitiated, Amazon Go stores sell every day, commonly-used items ranging from salads to toilet paper to grocery items. Consumers scan an app to enter the store, obtain what they need and depart. Scanners and ceiling sensors track what’s purchased and automatically charge the shopper’s credit or debit card. Shoppers even obtain a record of how long their shopping excursion took, since Amazon alerts purchasers of time spent in-store.

As of this writing Amazon Go currently operates stores in Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle. But the concept is starting to catch on throughout the States and Europe as well with companies like AiFi negotiating hi tech deals with convenience store chains in countries like France and Poland.

Automation isn’t new to the Asian market. China’s been the leading the boom for several years now, with stores like EasyGo, Bianlifeng and Take Go making strides. One of the most popular stores is Bingo Box which made its debut as a partnership between Auchan and Bingo Fresh last year, while in trials since 2016, which would make it slightly older than Amazon Go. With over 300 locations across China, BingoBox is growing rapidly.

Consumers use a QR code which is scanned at the store’s entrance. Once all your items have been collected, purchasers place their items on a checkout counter that uses image recognition technology to calculate the cost and charged to WeChat or Alipay. If you run into trouble, human support’s available via video link. When ready to depart, customers have to scan another QR code to leave the premises.

“The challenge with the Amazon Go model is that it favours younger consumers,” says Chan. “There’s still a large chunk of the population who don’t trust putting apps like Apple Pay on to their phone.

“Also, while boomers have lost a lot of strength in the economy, they still hold significant spending power. The Canadian way seems to be saying, ‘hold on we still need human interaction.”

That said, it’s still not clear if occupations central to the c-store experience, like cashiers, are heading the way of the dodo or if their roles will simply change and energies will be channelled into other areas of productivity like inventory for example.

Automation is inevitable,

says Chan, “and the cashier’s role is diminishing. You might see their role becoming more maintenance-oriented,” she suggests.

Another darker technological horse is starting to penetrate the industry as well. More and more larger retailers are looking at robotics as a viable cost-cutting options.

Indeed, a 2017 KPMG report, Robocalypse Now predicts that with initiatives like inventory control machines and smart chat technology in various stages of testing, robotics will change the face of retail.

But before you start to think the c-store apocalypse is upon us, consider a few things. Early in 2019 CBC News identified three Canadian Tire stores that scrapped their self-checkout machines, declining to comment other than to say that each store is independently operated by an associate dealer who decides what checkout method works best for its customers. But consumers took to social media outlets like Twitter to make their feelings heard about the machines’ lack of user-friendliness and perceived threat to cashier jobs. That feeling was echoed by US grocery chain PCC Community Markets, which also began removing self-checkout systems this year.

Chan believes that, compared to big box stores, c-stores, with their relatively smaller inventories, lend themselves quite well to automation.

“Technology is going to impact the overall retail experience,” she says. “It’s going to be interesting to watch how are interactions with stores are changing.”

Carter Hammett is a Toronto-based freelance writer
and editor.