Sainsbury's Opens Cashier-Free Mini-Supermarket In London - Here's How It Works

By James O Malley on at

Critics of new technology often complain that the tech today is so impersonal. We've got our heads buried in our phones - there's just no opportunities to talk to other people in real life, to make that human connection and share a moment of solidarity with our fellow human beings. Maybe this is true, but if there's one place I don't want to be having emotional moments of introspection it's while paying for my lunch. Just give me my sandwich and my Twix and shut up.

Which is why I was delighted that today Sainsbury's has officially opened its first ever cashier-free-shop just across the road from its head office in London. Initially running for three months, if you want purchase anything from inside the shop you need to download the Sainsbury's "SmartShop" app. Once you're inside you scan the barcodes of your shopping with your phone, and then pay with either Apple Pay or Google Pay. Earlier today, I went down to see how it actually works in practice.

The branch at Holborn Circus was rather busy when I arrived around lunchtime, not least because of all of the journalists trying it out inside. But it really was easy. I simply picked some bottled water off the shelf, scanned it with my phone and then chose to Apple Pay. I had to scan the exit QR code with my phone before I was allowed to leave, at which point my bank account was debited and a receipt was sent to the app. Easy! The only slightly annoying part -which mercifully, only happens once- is that you have to sign up with your Nectar card details and login before you can use the app.

But ultimately, it was an incredibly easy process - and something that I, a tech savvy early adopter, would happily do again. I'm not even too worried about Sainsbury's mining my shopping data, so long as they don't add a feature that will post on my Facebook automatically about what an absolutely horrendous diet I have.

Seeing the system in practice though was illumining. It all sounds great on paper, but it made me realise that the transition to this sort of shopping is going to be a bumpy process. Because today was launch day Sainsbury's was leaving nothing to chance: so this small shop must have had at least ten people coaching customers on how to use the app. But even so, there was still an enormous queue for the customer-service desk, where refuseniks could pay the old fashioned way if they really wanted.

The customer service queue was full of young, savvy people who should probably just use their phones.

Most amusing was seeing some of the customers' faces drop when the staff told them they would need to download an app in order to pay. One slightly older woman looked completely bewildered at the lack of check-outs, and definitely did not seem very pleased when the staff told her what she had to do.

So given that this is obviously the future, seeing how Sainsbury's manages this transition is going to be more interesting than the tech itself. Because there are going to be more actual customers being confronted with shops like this. Interestingly this branch was picked because apparently 80% of existing transactions were already contactless. Similarly, the demographics of the area suggest that the clientele is mostly affluent professionals who have smartphones. It's also just down the road from Sainsbury's HQ, which is a helpful bonus. So in terms of test cases, this is basically the best case scenario.

But hey, as long as I don't have to talk to anyone I wish Sainsbury's all of the luck in the world.