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For 75% of UK supermarket shoppers, the goal is speed — automated technologies offer solutions

Published on 27/03/2024 by David Jani

Going to a shop or supermarket is an experience that increasingly relies on technology. From item selection to checkout, automated technologies play a crucial role in the consumer journey. However, does this tech make the experience better and are customers comfortable with using these solutions? 

Many will have heard stories decrying the ‘failure’ of supermarket self-checkout machines or had personally frustrating moments of being told they have an ‘unexpected item in bagging area’. However, automation technology encompasses more than just self-checkouts, covering varied solutions from retail point of sale (POS) systems to click and collect online ordering.  

There are many new technologies found in retail and supermarket settings. However, they can be expensive and difficult to implement, which may leave smaller companies wondering if they are worth the overall effort, especially if customers find their use awkward.

To investigate, GetApp surveyed 301 respondents in the UK with experience in using automated technologies. The goal of this study was to learn how retailers and restaurant owners can address common customer pain points through automation and create a better and more efficient consumer experience. 

In this first article analysing the data, we focus primarily on automated shopping technologies in retail and supermarket businesses, whilst in part two we will look into how customers feel about restaurants using this tech.     

Our full methodology can be found at the bottom of the page.

Consumers seem open to retail automation overall

Despite the gloomy picture of retail automation often painted by the media, the real situation may actually be a little sunnier. When consulting our sample of UK participants we found that there was not only familiarity with automation technology but also a willingness to keep using it. 

Automated technologies in GetApp’s survey

We looked at a number of technology solutions for the purposes of this survey. Descriptions of these systems are detailed below:

Cashierless checkout: shop smart systems where customer purchases are detected via sensors and CCTV, allowing consumers to leave the shop and pay for their chosen goods (usually with an app) without having to queue at a checkout till. 

Contactless payment: POS systems that allow customers to use a debit/credit card or mobile-based digital wallet system to tap-to-pay when making a purchase. 

Click and collect: online systems that allow shoppers to select items to purchase and collect them from a local shop or retail branch. 

Self-checkout: machines that allow customers to scan their own items to purchase and process payment, with minimal staff interaction.

Augmented reality (AR) try-on: smartphone filters to allow customers to virtually try out products such as furniture, clothes, and cosmetics before committing to a purchase. 

When asking our sample of British shoppers, we found that 90% or more have used technologies such as self-checkout and contactless payment and would use them again. We also saw that around half of the whole sample (56%) have used and would continue using click and collect solutions.  

It appears that newer, more unfamiliar technologies have some appeal. For example, in the case of cashierless checkouts many (43%) have tried and liked using the technology, while 32% haven’t tried it but are interested in using it. 

AR try-on, however, does not appear to generate as much interest, with only a quarter having tried it at all. Furthermore, a total of 41% have no interest in trying it or using it again, the highest for any of the named technologies in this survey. 

This suggests that UK consumers are embracing technological innovations generally and are willing to try new systems when they are introduced. However, experience is everything for them to have staying power. 

The downside of tech reliance

Relying on automation tech can have downsides, as demonstrated by the widespread outages suffered by Sainsbury’s and Tesco in March. During this time, many consumers were unable to use click and collect or contactless payment in-store for a number of hours until the problem was fixed.

It is important to plan for contingencies where systems might fail and affect in-store service. Some important considerations might include:

  • Being prepared to manage payments when digital systems aren’t available
  • Ensuring staff are prepared to communicate issues to customers 
  • Setting up a system disaster recovery process

Is automated technology fast enough for consumers?

Speed is a common reason for the adoption of new technology. Companies seek to provide a more efficient and, hopefully, smooth experience for customers in-store. Does automated technology achieve this goal? 

For the most part, delays appear to be uncommon when automation technology is used. As the graph below demonstrates, most of the people in our sample with experience of using automation systems don’t experience delays. 

Graph showing how often users of retail automated technology have experienced delays

Whilst all these systems seem to perform well amongst the users surveyed, self-checkout does seem to encounter more issues than the others. This broadly correlates with the reports in the media mentioned previously, although problems affect less than half of shoppers in this survey. We will explore this technology a little more closely in the following section.  

To self-checkout or not to self-checkout, that is the question

It is clear from the data shown so far that consumers in the UK are not afraid to try out and use automated technology. However, we did see that self-checkout, whilst commonly used, was the tool most likely to give customers issues or delays.

We can also see from our findings that most retail and supermarket shoppers regard customer service as vital for their shopping experience: 87% said it is important. This could suggest that the comparative unreliability of self-checkouts could be especially problematic for ensuring customer satisfaction.

Graph showing the importance of customer service in retail and supermarkets

Yet this hasn’t proven to be the case. As already seen, self-checkout has been tried by almost the entirety of our sample. Additionally, almost all (97%) of those who have used the technology and would use it again say they are likely to use self-checkout in supermarkets. We also observed that over half (51%) also said they were likely to use self-checkout at retail shops.

What’s more, most people who have used them seem to report positive experiences at self-checkout kiosks, with nearly half (48%) saying they had a good experience and 22% saying their experience has been excellent. This seems to go against the narrative of self-checkouts harming customer experiences. 

This at least appears to suggest that whilst delays are a bit more common with self-checkout technology, the overall customer experience is generally good enough to justify their inclusion at a supermarket or shop. 

What are the downsides of self-checkouts for consumers?

Naturally, self-checkout technology has a number of issues that need to be addressed, given their higher likelihood of delays compared to other technologies considered in the survey. We asked respondents to identify these pain points.

When looking at the problems that can arise when using self-checkouts, we found that the biggest concern overall (selected by 76% of those who have used them) was needing a human staff member to intervene when something goes wrong. This might occur if a scanned item isn’t recognised by the system or an item (such as alcohol) needs age approval.

It is worth noting that this seems to have an effect on consumer behaviour. We observed that 74% of respondents overall prefer using human-staffed checkouts when buying age-restricted items such as alcohol and tobacco.

However, with regard to specific errors, most users identified issues with items in the bagging area being recognised. This was followed by problems when scanning items.

Graph of the common challenges faced by consumers using self-checkout

However, another consideration for companies is the risk of potential theft or loss of items when self-checkouts don’t work properly. We found that respondents seem to think that at least some of the time people intentionally or unintentionally leave a shop without paying for items after using a self-checkout. 

Graph showing how often people believe shoppers leave without paying for items when using self-checkout tills

Theft has always been a factor for retail and supermarket owners, although the recent cost of living crisis has led to a rise of theft in shops at self-checkouts. This may affect how businesses design their checkout space and where they position employees to ensure security is upheld safely where self-checkouts are used. An example of how this could be done is with security gates, as trialled by Morrisons. These require customers to show proof of payment before leaving the shop after using a self-checkout.      

Whilst there are many criticisms of self-checkouts, it appears those in the sample who have experience using self-checkouts remain undeterred from using them. We found that 73% of those who have used self-checkouts say they will use them more frequently in the future, adding that it adds efficiency (73%) and admitting that their experience has improved over the past 5 years (78%).

74% of respondents can accept automation tech replacing human staff at checkouts

A big question hanging over self-checkout technology is how customers feel about the replacement of human staff with machines. This has even led one supermarket in the North of England to make it a policy to replace self-scan checkouts with human staff in most of their branches.  

In our survey, we asked our sample which tasks they felt were most acceptable for automation technology to replace human staff. Most (74%) indicate that they accept businesses using automated checkouts instead of human staff. Using automation technology to help customers find items in the store and manage returns and exchanges was also seen as acceptable but to a much lesser extent.

graph of tasks where consumers accept the use of automation technology over humans

When asked what would improve in-store shopping experiences, only 29% want more human interaction and employees, although only 10% want more automation specifically. Furthermore, 51% want faster checkout times, and most (54%) want to be able to find what they need faster.

It therefore appears that automation technology can gain wide acceptance when used to improve the shopping experience so that it is faster and more efficient. This is also supported by the fact that self-checkout technology is the automation tech that most shoppers feel comfortable using and they seem to have no qualms about the lack of human interaction on the whole.  

Where is a human touch needed?

A major concern with checkout-free shopping for respondents in GetApp’s 2022 Go Shopping survey was a lack of staff support. This doesn’t seem to be as much of a concern in the case of self-checkout, although as seen in the data, staff are still needed to assist when issues arise. 

Providing additional training could prove beneficial to help retail staff spot where issues could be arising so they can step in more promptly. Extra training in this way can also help prepare them to assist with other major concerns identified in this study, such as helping customers find items in-store more quickly. Training software can help optimise these practices and ensure staff can help customers enjoy the best experience possible.

Speedy supermarket trips are the goal for shoppers

We’ve already seen that time is a factor for consumers when they use automation technologies in shops. Therefore knowing how buyers approach speed in their shopping experience could influence where businesses decide to apply automated technologies.

When looking at how consumers in our sample approach the shopping experience we observed a couple of key trends. First of all, most respondents (75%) say that they aim to complete supermarket trips as quickly as possible. With retail shops, however, there are almost equally as many respondents who are willing to take their time trying and selecting items as those wanting the fastest experience possible.

Graph showing how consumers shop in different retail settings

We also found that, overall, convenience was the top benefit of automation technology in retail shops and supermarkets for most of our sample (68%), although this was closely followed by speed (65%). This indicates that supermarkets seem to have a key advantage of using these technologies over retail but both can benefit from their application.

This appeared to be especially true with click and collect technology. Of those who use or are interested in using click and collect services, over half say they are likely to use them at supermarkets. 

Graph showing the places where consumers are most likely to use click and collect technology

This doesn’t come as a big surprise as we have already seen that shoppers prefer minimising their time spent in supermarkets. Click and collect offers a simple solution for this as it allows customers to order their items in advance and then collect them in one go from a branch, reducing a shopping trip time to a minimum.

Consumers give a positive impression of automation technologies in supermarkets

We had expected to see a negative view of automation technologies given the often negative press they receive. However, we observed a more positive picture.

Speed and convenience are essential to shoppers and automation technology appears to deliver on providing that experience for our sample. Most actively use or are interested in trying new types of automation technology and, despite common complaints and more technical troubles than comparative tools, self-checkout seems to be accepted and even favoured by UK consumers.

These findings suggest that retail businesses should think carefully before throwing out the idea of adopting automation technology as the situation isn’t entirely clear cut. However, getting its adoption right is the key to success and it’s important to prepare backup plans for when common issues arise and to make sure staff are ready to support their introduction.  

Supermarkets and retail shops are just one example of a business where automation technology can make a difference. In the second part of our 2024 Retail Automation Survey, we will consider how these technologies are regarded and used in restaurant settings.

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Methodology

GetApp's 2024 Retail Automation Survey was conducted online in February 2024 among 301 respondents in the UK. The goal of the study was to learn how retailers and restaurants can address customer pain points with automation to ensure technology is adding efficiency to the customer experience. Respondents were screened for their experience with automation technologies at retail businesses and restaurants.


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About the author

David is a Content Analyst for the UK, providing key insights into tech, software and business trends for SMEs. Cardiff University graduate. He loves traveling, cooking and F1.

David is a Content Analyst for the UK, providing key insights into tech, software and business trends for SMEs. Cardiff University graduate. He loves traveling, cooking and F1.