International examples of unmanned store concepts
by Katja Laska (exclusively for EuroShop.mag)
Tiny store, micro store, smart store, unmanned retail kiosk, smart vending machine store – different names for concepts that all have the same goal: Customers shop 24/7 in staff-free stores using cashless payment options.
Last year saw several of these store concepts enter a testing phase or their launch. We checked out some international examples. Upon closer look, it becomes clear that despite sharing the same idea, there are distinctions between the stores.
In the white paper “Smart Stores 24/7 – Status Quo and Outlook” by the Baden-Württemberg Cooperative State University in Heilbronn (German: Duale Hochschule Baden- Württemberg, DHBW), authors Stephan Rüschen, Sandra Dengel, Markus Hoffmann, Patrick Jäger, Toni Röder, and Ernesto Scheidler distinguish between two categories: vending machine solutions and walk-in stores.
Vending Machine Solutions
At Renningen train station, EDEKA and Deutsche Bahn have teamed up to test a so-called box solution. Customers don’t get to pick products from a store shelf, but shop using an app or touch screen. A robot picks the selected items and dispenses them from the backend via an automated machine. What makes this really handy: customers can pre-order and quickly pickup their purchase when they change trains.
Smart Vending Machine Store
Milk or egg vending machines have been around for quite some time. Carrefour Express 24/7 expanded on this idea and enhanced it. In Warsaw, the company combines several vending machines, yielding a big advantage: a wider range of products.
Stores out in the Countryside
Unmanned stores are not just gaining a foothold in cities or public transport hubs like train stations. We can also find them in rural areas. In December 2020, the Lifvs chain set up a wooden container, about the size of a mobile home, in Hummelsta, a small town of 1,000 in Sweden. “Many local grocery stores had to close because they couldn’t survive with a small customer base. Our technology enables us to bring back a service such as grocery shopping to rural areas,” says Daniel Lundh, co-founder of the Stockholm-based start-up. “Before we set up our store, people had to drive to the nearest big city to go grocery shopping. They no longer have to go out of their way for this service.” The company also thought about sustainability in the event that the residents would no longer embrace this concept: The wooden structure of the store can be quickly and easily taken down and removed, leaving no trace of its prior existence in the area.
Grab & Go
In this store version – which includes the recently opened Amazon Fresh store in London – customers use a QR code to access the store, pick their items and leave the store without the need to scan them. This is made possible by artificial intelligence: product recognition via motion sensors and automatic weight detection when the products are taken off the shelf.
Self-Service Checkout at the POS or via Smartphone
The Avec Box at Zurich’s central station is a great example of the tried-and-tested shopping concept we all know from brick-and-mortar retail: Many grocery stores or big furniture retailers feature unmanned self-service checkouts next to the traditional cash registers. In this case, customer have to stop “at the checkout” to self-scan the products. If customers don’t like this option, they can scan their items as they shop and walk through the store with a self-scanning app on their smartphone and pay for their purchase when they leave the store.
This model combines the staff-free concept with service personnel. As is the case at Würth 24, staff assists customers during designated store hours. After hours, customers shop on their own. Shoppers complete their purchase by either using the self-checkout or via scanning app on their smartphone.