Sainsbury’s managed to get an extraordinary amount of press coverage over the launch of the UK’s first till-free grocery store pilot, but its attempt to do an Amazon Go on the cheap is falling flat. Two months on, and the Sainsbury’s central London food-to-go store in Holborn is often empty, bar a queue of obstinate shoppers paying … at the till.

The first problem that any supposedly pay-via-app store has, is getting shoppers to register so the retailer can identify and process the shopper’s payments. This, of course, causes friction which is what till-free stores are designed to avoid, so it is imperative to handle this in a streamlined manner.

Sainsbury’s till-free store

Unfortunately, Sainsbury’s stumbles badly here as it requires not only the downloading of, and sign-up through, its SmartShop app, it also demands shoppers have a Nectar card, for which a separate sign-up needs to be done online, and that card number then has to be input into the SmartShop app. The only options for payment are Google Pay and Apple Pay, both of which need to be set up with links to payment cards before the first shopping trip.

For many, this is way too much friction, and when we visited we saw many customers directed to a till in this supposedly till-free store, where cash and cards were accepted after all, and many simply left without making a purchase at all.

The point is of course that once the set-up is completed, all subsequent visits are much easier, potentially making it worthwhile, but for many shoppers, the promise of low-friction purchases in the future will not be enough to endure the upfront friction. The Holborn store is typically used by nearby office workers who have plenty of other places they can buy their lunch from (including a much busier standard Sainsbury’s Local store just around the corner).

The retailer really has to ensure that shoppers are enticed to sign-up with the promise of a discount off their first purchase, something Sainsbury’s did not do as part of this pilot.

The second major problem is the awkwardness of shopping one-handed, as one hand is always occupied by the need to operate a smartphone. So the one hand carrying a bag has to retrieve the item from the shelf, which you scan with your smartphone in the other hand, and then somehow you try and get the item into your bag even though both your hands are full. It seems likely that the breakage rate will be somewhat higher than in other stores. The app reacts reasonably quickly, though it requires you to tap a button on screen before each item is scanned, which seems unnecessary, as is the demand that you scan a QR code at the exit after payment has been accepted. This is likely to trigger a random check by security to ensure all the items being removed from the shop have been scanned and paid for, but surely such a trigger could be automated without introducing an extra friction point for all shoppers?

Sainsbury’s pilot feels like a cheap, less convenient, Amazon Go – which itself has not been without problems. Despite all the hype since Go’s launch two-and-a-half years ago, it has only expanded to 12 locations and is yet to open its first UK store, or indeed launch anywhere outside the US. The high installation and technology costs of its more ambitious model appear to be hindering its growth. It too requires a specific app to be downloaded, but having gained entry to the store via a smartphone, shoppers are then rewarded with a hands-free shopping experience, as cameras and sensors track the location of the products and payment is taken automatically without any further smartphone interactions.

Sainsbury’s version may be far cheaper to implement, but it requires too much effort by the consumer without reducing enough friction. Yes, you can avoid the queues but only if you accept a fiddlier and more awkward shopping experience, and that’s a meal deal the office workers of Holborn are turning their noses up at.

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