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Walmart Pilots Self-Checkout Store in Arkansas

Recent partnerships with Shopify and ThredUp have illustrated that Walmart isn’t slowing down amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and in fact has done everything in its power to get out in front of accelerating shopping trends. The retail giant is now taking shifting store trends to the next level by testing out a predominantly checkout-free store in Fayetteville, Ark.

The store now features only a lineup of self-checkout lanes replacing the traditional conveyor belt checkout setup, with zero cashiers or cash registers. While the pilot is designed to save time throughout the checkout experience, it also is intended to help reduce exposure to coronavirus and promote social distancing when it’s time for shoppers to pay and bag their goods. Depending on employee and shopper feedback, the program could be expanded to more Walmart stores.

Self-checkout “hosts” are still stationed nearby the machines to ensure shoppers receive assistance if they have trouble. According to company statements, customers can as these staff members to run their groceries through the self-checkout process while they wait, effectively using the checkout stations like normal registers.

The initiative comes three months after the company deployed a touch-free payment system called Walmart Pay aimed at mitigating the spread of COVID-19. The move to touch-free should quell concerns of many shoppers, with 82 percent viewing contactless payment experiences as a “cleaner” way to pay at checkout, according to Mastercard.

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In May, Walmart also expanded its “store-to-door” Express Delivery service to 2,000 stores. Express Delivery, which anticipates getting products from a store to a shopper within two hours, is a non-contact service that was designed to reduce shopper anxiety related to the virus, so customers can opt to remain distant from employees throughout the process.

Walmart also recently announced it would streamline its general merchandise and grocery apps to allow customers to shop online for everything using one application.

Over the past few years, Walmart has piloted various autonomous checkout process, slowly adding more self-checkout kiosks in many of its stores across the country. Walmart had its own scan-and-go mobile checkout-free program in more than 100 stores before discontinuing the service in April 2018. The program, which enabled users to use the Scan and Go app on their mobile phones to check out, reportedly was cancelled due to problems with in-store theft.

Sam’s Club has had a similar mobile program in place since 2016 across all of its stores, and, in the past few years, Walmart has implemented the concept in Walmart Canada and has even deployed a checkout-free concept store in Texas, called Sam’s Club Now.

The risk of theft still exists with the Fayetteville self-checkout pilot, but it could potentially be reduced if Walmart has enough employees keeping a close eye on self-checkout transactions.

The adoption of self-checkout, and the degree to which users will have to use technology or interact with store employees, varies across retail.

The much-hyped Amazon Go convenience store concept enables shoppers to simply scan their app at a turnstile upon entering a store. After grabbing the items they need, shoppers can leave and the card tied to their Amazon account is automatically charged for any items they take. The “Just Walk Out” technology is powered by a combination of cameras, computer vision, sensor fusion and deep learning, enabling Amazon to detect when items are picked up and replaced on a shelf and how long a shopper stays in a store.

Apparel retailers and department stores have been some of the slowest to adopt any self-checkout or “cashierless” technology, even though they stand to benefit since as consumers harbor concerns about the safety of reopened stores. In April, just 37 percent of shoppers say they would feel safe shopping in a department store again after they reopen, according to a survey from First Insight, well below the comfort level of grocery store shoppers (54 percent) and drug store shoppers (50 percent). Both grocers and drug stores have made more use of self-checkout technologies than apparel retailers have, even prior to the pandemic.