Forecast | When cashiers go extinct, in-store and online purchases blend: Future of retail P2

The year is 2033, and it's been a long day at work. You're listening to some classic blues-rock by The Black Keys, reclining in your driver's seat, and catching up on your personal emails while your car speeds down the highway driving you home for dinner. 

You get a text. It's from your fridge. It's reminding you for the third time that you're running low on all your foodstuffs. Money is tight, and you don't want to pay the grocery service to deliver the replacement food to your home, but you also know that your wife will kill you if you forget to buy the groceries for the third day in a row. So you download your fridge's grocery list and voice command your car to make a detour to the nearest grocery store. 

The car pulls into a free parking space near the supermarket entrance and gradually turns up the music to wake you from your nap. After lurching forward and turning down the music, you step out of your car and head inside. 

Everything is bright and inviting. The produce, baked goods, and food substitute aisles are massive, whereas the meat and seafood sections are tiny and expensive. The supermarket itself also looks larger, not because they are space-wise, but because there’s barely anyone here. Aside from a few other shoppers, the only other people in the store are elderly food pickers collecting food orders for home deliveries.

You remember your list. The last thing you want is another stern text from your fridge—somehow they seem worse than the texts you get from your wife. You walk around picking up all the items from your list, before pushing your cart through the checkout path and back to your car. As you load up the trunk, you get a notification on your phone. It’s the digital bitcoin receipt of all the food you walked out with.

Deep inside you’re happy. You know your fridge will stop bugging you, at least for the next few days.

The seamless shopping experience

The scenario above seems wonderfully seamless, doesn’t it? But how will it work?

By the early-2030s, everything, especially food items at supermarkets will have RFID tags (tiny, trackable, ID stickers or pellets) embedded into them. These tags are miniature microchips that wirelessly communicate with nearby sensors that then communicate with the store's big data crunching supercomputer or cloud computing service. ... I know, that sentence was a lot to take in. Basically, everything you buy will have a computer in it, those computers will talk to each other, and they will work together to make your shopping experience, and your life, easier.

(This tech is largely based upon the Internet of Things that you can read more about in our Future of the Internet series.) 

As this technology becomes more widespread, shoppers will simply collect groceries into their cart and exit the supermarket without ever interacting with a cashier. The store would have registered all the items the shopper selected remotely before leaving the premises and charged the shopper automatically via his or her preferred payment app on their phone. This process will save shoppers a great deal of time and lead to a reduction in food prices overall, due largely to the supermarket not needing to mark up their produce to pay for cashiers and security.                       

Older individuals, or Luddites too paranoid to carry smartphones that share their buying history, may still pay using a traditional cashier. But those transactions will gradually be discouraged through higher pricing of products paid for through traditional means. While the example above is dealing with grocery shopping, note that this form of streamlined in-store purchasing will be integrated into retail stores of all kinds.

At first, this trend will start with the increasingly popular showroom-type stores that display large or expensive products while having little, if any, inventory. These stores will gradually add interactive “Buy it now” signs to their product stands. These signs or stickers or tags will include next-gen QR codes or RFID chips that will allow customers to use their smartphones to make a one-click instant purchase of products they find in-store. The purchased products will be delivered to customer’s homes within a few days, or for a premium, next day or same day delivery will be available. No muss, no fuss.

Meanwhile, stores that carry and sell a large inventory of goods will gradually use this system to replace cashiers altogether. In fact, Amazon recently opened a grocery store, called Amazon Go, that hopes to make our opening scenario a reality about a decade ahead of schedule. Amazon customers can simply enter an Amazon Go location by scanning in their phone, pick out the products they want, leave, and have their grocery bill automatically debited from their Amazon account. Watch the video below to see how Amazon explains it:

By 2026, expect Amazon to begin licensing this retail technology out to smaller retailers as a service, thereby accelerating the shift towards frictionless retail shopping.

The other point to consider is that these in-store instant purchases will still be attributed to each store the mobile sales came from, encouraging store managers to actively promote their use. What this means is that shoppers will be able to buy products online while inside the store, and it will become the easiest shopping experience ever. 

Delivery nation

That said, while this new form of shopping may be relatively seamless, for a portion of the population, it still may not be convenient enough. 

Already, thanks to apps like Postmates, UberRUSH, and other services, the young and web-obsessed are opting to have their takeout, groceries, and most other purchases delivered directly to their door. 

Revisiting our grocery store example, a fair number of people will simply opt out of visiting physical grocery stores altogether. Instead, some grocery chains will convert many of their stores into warehouses that deliver food directly to customers after they select their food purchases through an online menu. Those grocery chains that decide to keep their stores will continue to offer an in-store grocery shopping experience, but will also supplement their revenue by acting as the local food warehouse and shipment center for a variety of smaller food delivery e-businesses. 

Meanwhile, smart, web-enabled refrigerators will speed up that process by monitoring both the food you normally purchase (via RFID tags) and your consumption rate to create an auto-generated food shopping list. When you’re close to running out of food, your fridge will message you on your phone, ask you whether you want to restock the fridge with the premade shopping list (including individualized health recommendations of course), then—with a one-click buy button—send the order to your registered e-grocery chain, prompting a same-day delivery of your shopping list. This is not that far off mind you; should Amazon’s Echo gain the ability to talk with your fridge, then this sci-fi future will become a reality before you know it.

Again, keep in mind that this automated buying system won’t be limited to groceries, but to all household items once smart homes become commonplace. And yet, even with this growth in demand for delivery services, brick and mortar stores aren’t going anywhere soon, as we explore in our next chapter.

Likelihood of happening rating 
Massive (5/5)
importance rating 
Large (4/5)
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Next scheduled update for this forecast
March 2, 2021. Last updated March 2, 2019.
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