Recent store openings by Nike and Zara owner Inditex have included self-service facilities, enabling shoppers to buy and walk out without passing through a traditional till-point.
“Just walk out” is the term patented by Amazon, of course, as part of its roll-out of tech-heavy, checkout-free Amazon Go grocery stores in the US. And self-service technology is nothing new in grocery, with Safeway launching self-scanning in 1995 and the wider supermarket world introducing self-checkouts over the last 20 years.
But Nike and Inditex brands Zara and Massimo Dutti’s experiments with self-service mark a crossing of the sectors for self-service.
Nike opened its “House of Innovation 000” store on 15 November, featuring an array of unique service touchpoints linked to the sports brand’s mobile app, helping to bridge some of the gaps between digital and physical retailing that so many companies bemoan.
One of those features is the Nike Instant Checkout, with several of these points positioned throughout the 68,000ft2 store on the corner of Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street.
Consumers using the Nike app access this feature by scanning products with their smartphone. They can check out directly from their device using stored payment details, as is the function in a growing number of supermarket chains.
Customers bag their own items and they will receive a payment receipt within the app too, presumably for the dual purpose of proving they made the purchase if asked by Nike staff, but also to aid after-sales communication. Nike did not have a spokesperson available to give more detail on this point.
Growth of self-service
Inditex, meanwhile, has been trialling, honing and offering self-service technology since 2015, related to a wide-scale RFID [radio-frequency identification] project. After some early deployments in its Iberian heartlands, the self-service element has now found its way into Zara UK, including its London Oxford Street and Westfield Stratford City stores.
“Self-service checkout units complement the purchasing options in order to speed up the paying process in stores, since customers can independently complete the payment for their selected items without approaching the till-point,” says an Inditex spokesperson.
“Located next to the fitting rooms, the device scans the items that the customer is about to purchase. Those items will be displayed on the screen while waiting for the customer to confirm, scan additional garments or correct possible mistakes and subsequently proceed with payment.”
Alarms are removed from the items after payment has been completed, while the garments are identified and automatically scanned on to the machines with aid of the RFID technology in which Inditex has placed so much investment. Customers themselves remove the security tags during the process.
Zara still describes the self-service terminals as being “trialled”, and they are not replacing staff-operated checkouts, but their arrival highlights a new direction of travel.
In 2014, Inditex chairman and CEO Pablo Isla described RFID as “a next-generation technology”, and it seems the roll-out of RFID at Zara has helped support its move towards self-service.
Inditex recently said its RFID system had reached a fully operational stage at Zara, with the focus turning to the technology’s introduction at Massimo Dutti, Pull&Bear and Uterqüe – with group-wide deployment expected by 2020. That in itself could lead to more self-service, as the group gains further control and visibility of its inventory.
John Regan, retail IT consultant at technology supplier Diebold Nixdorf, says RFID’s growing affordability and usability in the store environment – as opposed to its historic use primarily in logistics – has opened up self-serve opportunities.
“There are a few factors at play here, though,” he says. “There is a big shift towards card payment over cash, which makes the self-service solutions cheaper to implement and support – especially if cash drawers aren’t included. The National Living Wage is also driving retailers to get control of their labour costs.”
Regan showcased a desk of four self/assisted service tills at Diebold Nixdorf’s Tech Style event in London this November. He says fashion retailers have multiple challenges, including the need to process a growing number of returns in-store, which means they will be receptive to technology such as this to alleviate the related pressures.
“Two years ago, if we’d had this conversation, retailers would have been lukewarm, but now they are saying ‘we need some help here and we must do something about this’,” he says.
What the analysts say
Spencer Izard, lead researcher and adviser at IT analyst group Leading Edge Forum, says the broader adoption of self-service in retail has been “of high interest” in recent years, but cites some “logistical hurdles” in the way of fashion following grocery’s path.
“The use of security tags on clothing is understandably prevalent across fashion retailing, but to reduce friction, the responsibility of removing this tag in a self-service model would be on the customer,” he says.
“Retailers that sell fashion products are already challenged with products being accidentally damaged by customers who catch the tags and, in doing so, damage the item. By moving to a self-service model, the removal of the tag will become an activity performed not by staff but by untrained customers, who could damage items prior to purchase, which increases the potential for product wastage significantly.”
Nevertheless, Izard agrees that retailers are increasingly keen to manage bottlenecks in stores better at times of high footfall, and speed up transactions, like Amazon Go and other so-called “frictionless” transaction stores have done.
For Martin Schofield, former retail systems manager at Burberry and ex-IT and logistics director at Harvey Nichols, who is now director of Retail247 Consulting, there are some fashion retailers where self-service would probably be welcomed. But he cautions that much of the mid-to-premium market retail attraction relies on human service.
“You’ve got the likes of Primark that consider themselves more of a supermarket, where it’s all about volume and throughput,” he says.
“Equally, its customers are probably OK about getting in and out quickly using self-service. But in a physical fashion world, it’ll be a long time until we take self-service to the level of a supermarket due to the importance attached to service.”
Schofield adds: “But we will start seeing more and more elements of self-awareness and self-empowerment in the retail environment, through fitting room screen interaction, payment in-store via app and other methods.”
And for Regan, whose company is clearly keen to promote self-service tech in fashion, that summary rings true. He sees more immediate user cases for value and mid-market fashion players such as Matalan, New Look and Primark, but then others to follow.
“Early adopters will look to gain from it financially,” he says. “We are having discussions with many retailers, and these ones will drive the adoption of self-service in fashion, but the more premium retailers will then want to adopt it from a customer service point of view, as shoppers come to expect it.
“We are talking over a long period here – I don’t see this hugely penetrating in fashion overnight. It’ll take five years before it’s deemed the norm, and it’ll be a blend of assisted service rather than solely self-service, because that suits the sector.”