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Photograph: Al Robinson/Getty Images

Are unstaffed supermarkets bad for London’s soul?

A modern marvel, or a premonition of a nightmarish robotic future? We look into the human-free shop debate

India Lawrence
Written by
India Lawrence

Have you been to one of those Amazon Fresh stores in London? A squeaky-clean, eerily futuristic shop. A visit involves no interaction with staff at all. To gain entry, all you need is an Amazon account and a smartphone. Signs on the shelves implore you to ‘Just walk out’. You stroll away with the oddly smug feeling that you haven’t paid for your shopping, only to check your Amazon account later and discover that the retailers have totted up all the items you picked up and left you a neat bill.

In London, supermarket shopping has become augmented. Almost all grocery stores these days are full of self-service-card-only tills (SSCOTs). A typical trip to the shops now involves playing Jenga with your items, as the cheery robotic voice tells you to ‘remove the unexpected item from the bagging area’. The red light starts flashing – a very bad omen – as you desperately hope for a human being to come and rescue you. 

New technology, customer convenience and the appeal of reduced labour costs have made way for the boom in staffless stores. In March 2021, Amazon opened its first till-less supermarket in the UK in Ealing. There are now 19 of them in the country, with all but one being in London.  Alongside Amazon Fresh, Tesco is slowly rolling out a wave of ‘checkout-free supermarkets’ called Tesco GetGo, which also require an app for entry. Even Aldi is opening a no-checkout store in Dalston, and Morrissons is rumoured to be revealing one soon. We’re also going increasingly cash-free – Tesco Express on High Holborn has been entirely devoid of physical money since 2018. This isn’t just happening in the UK, either. China, Sweden, Japan and the US all have supermarkets that are cash and staff-free. But is this tech something to be worried about?

People have been ranting and raving about self-scan machines since their inception – they’ve always brought with them fears of a fully automated world. And where high streets and supermarkets were once hubs for communities, we now have more and more soulless stores where people avoid human interaction at all costs. But are these shops simply an answer to our insatiable demands for more and more convenience and longer and longer opening hours, or are they sucking the life out of our cities?

The lonely Londoners 

London is in the midst of a loneliness epidemic and it’s very possible that all this automated stuff isn’t helping. A recent study by the Greater London Authority and Neighbourly Lab, a think tank for improving community in the UK, found that one in 12 Londoners is lonely, with 700,000 of us saying we are ‘often or always lonely’.

Similarly, a national study by the Office of National Statistics during the pandemic found that London is the loneliest place in England. Nearly one in three Londoners said they felt lonely some or all of the time during Covid, 20 percent higher than the UK-wide average.

The small exchanges we have every day actually lead to a longer, healthier life

Londoners are also more likely to feel isolated if they’re acutely poor, single, living alone, disabled or have experienced prejudice (such as being an ethnic minority, or part of the LGBTQ+ community).

‘Machines are a big part of who we are and what we do, but the problem isn’t machines, it’s the absence of other people,’ says Grainne O’Dwyer, a senior programme manager at Neighbourly Lab. 

O’Dwyer has been researching the importance of interactions between frontline staff and regular people. According to her, daily micro-interactions – the small exchanges we have with our neighbours, bus drivers, post workers and shop assistants – can actually lead to a longer, healthier life. 

In the cost-of-living crisis, loneliness has got even worse. ‘If you don’t have money to go out and socialise and be in bars and other social spaces the supermarket might be one of the only places where you get that kind of interaction,’ says O’Dwyer.

Calling it out

The 230,000 people who signed Pat McCarthy’s petition would agree. In May, the 69-year-old from west London called to ‘stop the replacement of humans by machines’ at Tesco checkouts. Her appeal has been gaining traction, and by August #BringBackTescoStaff was trending on Twitter. 

In the petition, McCarthy writes that self-service machines are ‘overwhelming’  and ‘a nightmare’. She thinks they’re bad for community, contribute to loneliness and are inaccessible. 

‘A supermarket shop is part of the community,’ she says. She volunteers helping disabled people with the Disability Network Hounslow. And as someone with her own mobility issues after suffering strokes, she says she finds it ‘profoundly difficult’ to physically lift her own shopping on to the tills. Not to mention, they frustratingly often stop working.

There’s also the problem of cash. ‘People without credit cards or debit cards can’t use the card-only tills,’ points our McCarthy. ‘Neither can carers who shop for their clients with cash, plus many workers who work for small businesses who still get paid in cash. The most vulnerable are less likely to be able to access the new checkouts.’

staffless supermarkets
Photograph: Getty / Time Out

Last month, new research from the Post Office showed that more people are returning to cash as a result of the cost-of-living crisis. The Post Office handled over £800 million in personal cash withdrawals in July, 20 percent more than the previous year and the largest amount of cash withdrawals of the past five years. 

But not everyone wants a cheery-local-shopkeeper, ‘here’s your change’ transaction. Alex Hyatt, 28, from London thinks self-service checkouts are actually more inclusive. He’s autistic and enjoys being able to avoid ‘real human interaction where you have to do small talk’ while he shops.

‘I disagree with people wanting to get rid of them,’ he says. ‘Even though I don't like the idea of workers not being in a job that pays them when we will automate a lot of the world in the future, I still prefer to have a shop with no one in it.’

But as more and more shops go cashless, or require an app for access, it begs the question: what would a future look like where the most disadvantaged people might not be able to even get access to a grocery store?

The surveillance problem

The issue with staffless shops isn’t just about being forced to joylessly scan your own Hovis. Kleptomaniacs will be sorry to hear that new technology that films shoppers at the checkouts is coming to stop ‘swipers’ from putting through expensive items as cheaper goods, something which already costs superstores £500 million every year. Although shoplifting is undoubtedly bad (and literally illegal), this aspect of human-free retail brings a whole new raft of questions about surveillance and privacy. 

Ahmed, 28, who preferred to remain anonymous, works at an Amazon Fresh store. ‘I prefer when there's communication,’ he says. ‘When technology increases, the less human interaction you get. If you go to China, it’s crazy. You just walk into the shop, there are no barriers. Not even any staff.’ (He’s talking about the country’s notorious technology that lets you pay purely by facial recognition.) ‘If we went that way in the UK, I’d move out.’

Although it sounds like a dystopian nightmare, this kind of facial recognition technology is already being used in the UK. The grocery retail chain Southern Co-op came under fire in July from civil rights groups after using ‘Orwellian’ facial recognition in its 35 UK stores, two of which are in London.

An antidote to automation

So, how do you cater to a generation besotted by convenience but also seriously lonely? For O’Dwyer, we need to spend money on initiatives that generate a sense of belonging. This could mean introducing ‘Chatty Fridays’ at the supermarket or bringing in community groups to interact with people while they shop. Other countries are already trying out schemes like this: the French retailer Carrefour recently started ‘chit-chat checkouts’, where customers are encouraged to take more time and have conversations. 

‘As tech comes in, things get pushed to other spaces and other things increase in value,’ says O’Dwyer. ‘We need space for the automation, but it’s also about having spaces where customers can engage with each other.

‘People often think that it’s the big conversations you have in your day that matter, but the value of having that mesh of care around you and getting to say hi to your neighbour has a cumulative and significant impact.’

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