EDITOR’S NOTE: Like all posts on Aldi Reviewer, this piece is the opinion of the respective authors.
While much attention has been paid to online shopping in recent years, either delivered to your home or picked up curbside, most customers still do their shopping in-store. There are a lot of reasons for that, including the fact that online shopping often has added costs and because shopping online has its own set of hassles. Some customers, too, just like to be able to see their food before they buy it.
With in-person shopping alive and well, companies are trying to innovate in those experiences, too.
Competing In-Store Technologies
In the fight for the future of in-store grocery shopping, there are currently two technologies front and center. One of those is self-checkout, which is now common in many grocery and big box stores. With self-checkout, customers scan the products themselves, bag the groceries themselves, and then pay at the kiosk and leave. Self-checkout is about as divisive as politics: some customers love it, and others hate it.
The other is checkout-free. With checkout-free, a customer checks into a store with a smartphone app, then goes around the store, picks up whatever they need, and then walks out when they’re done. A combination of technologies, including the app and store cameras, track what customers pick up and set down, and those technologies then determine what the customer bought and then charge the customer’s credit card through the app after the customer leaves. This technology currently exists in the form of Amazon Go, a pet project of Amazon in a handful of cities across the United States and United Kingdom.
Aldi and the Future
Aldi is right now piloting both technologies. On the self-checkout front, Aldi is testing the concept in several countries, starting with the United Kingdom a couple of years ago and expanding more recently to Australia and the United States. Interestingly, Aldi US has been silent about its pilot, which launched in Ohio without any announcement whatsoever, not even a press release. I wonder if divided opinions over self-checkout are part of the reason for the silence.
More recently, Aldi has dipped into checkout-free technology. In September of 2021, Aldi UK announced in a press release that it was piloting a checkout-free store in London. This store would operate much like Amazon Go, where customers would check in with an app, pick up what they need, and then be automatically charged when they leave.
At the time of this post, we’re a long way away from having checkout-free Aldi stores everywhere. Checkout-free technology is much more complicated than self-checkout, requiring several technologies to work together accurately and effectively. Aldi UK — which seems to be on the forefront of many Aldi pilots, including in-store grocery pickup and shipping of limited buys — has been testing the technology with Aldi employees but nothing has opened to the public yet. Amazon Go took more than a year to go from testing to public opening, so it’s probably going to be a while before Londoners have a store to try. For Aldi shoppers in other countries like the United States and Australia, it will be much longer. Years, probably, and even then only in select places to start.
What Makes More Sense for Aldi
All things being equal, we think Aldi and checkout-free is a better marriage than Aldi and self-checkout.
Among the things that make Aldi different, two of the biggest are speed and efficiency. Aldi aims to make its checkout experience as fast as possible, and it aims to make its stores efficient enough to keep prices low. That’s why many Aldi products have multiple bar codes to make it easier to scan products, and why customers use a quarter system to return carts rather than have employees do it.
Self-checkout certainly keeps costs low by reducing the number of checkout employees, but it doesn’t necessarily win points in the speed category. It’s hard to see an average customer scanning groceries faster than a trained Aldi employee. I’ve been in plenty of self-checkout lines, and even customers with just a few items can take a while. Self-checkout might have value as a supplement to Aldi employees, but it’s also not hard to see how self-checkout lanes could get bogged down, especially if there are hiccups. And anyone who has used self-checkout and heard the kiosk say things like “please place the item back on the counter” or “please wait for an attendant” knows there are often hiccups.
Checkout-free, though, wins on both counts. It wins on speed, because there is no checkout lane; in fact, customers can even bag their groceries in the store aisles before they leave. And it wins on efficiency, because you don’t need to pull workers off their other duties, like stocking aisles, to man the checkout lane.
Potential Pitfalls of Checkout-Free
Some people might object to checkout-free as taking jobs away from workers. That’s a legitimate issue, but also not one Aldi is probably going to lose a lot of sleep over. Aldi has always been a lean operation, focused on keeping staff down so prices also stay down. The quarter you put in the cart, and the fact that you bag your own groceries, take jobs away from workers, too. (To be fair, Aldi also generally pays its workers well.)
Another issue is access. To use checkout-free stores, you would need a smartphone that could use the app and make the purchase. In the United States, there are bound to be people, especially those in poverty or elderly shoppers, who don’t have the technology to make it happen. Given that Aldi is a popular option for many low-income Americans, it’s hard to see Aldi US replacing cashiers in all of its stores, at least not in the near future.
Right now, the issue is probably academic: Aldi isn’t close to a checkout-free experience, not right now, while it’s a lot closer to implementing a self-checkout experience. For that reason, you’re probably likely to see a self-checkout lane in your Aldi long before you can just walk in and out without a lane at all.
But I think that, in the long term, checkout-free will do a better job of helping Aldi do what it does best — namely, making for a fast, low-cost experience. It’s just a matter of getting there.