Retail chains are testing the supermarket of the future – without cash registers, without staff

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A rolling kiosk without a driver, a shop open around the clock without a salesperson, a supermarket without a cash register: the future has already begun in German retail. In more and more places in Germany, large retail chains such as Edeka, Rewe or Tegut are currently testing new ways to make their branches fit for the future in view of the booming online trade.

Take Cologne, for example: In the cathedral city, Rewe and Vodafone have been testing what is known as “Europe’s first self-driving kiosk” since Wednesday. Without a driver or salesperson, the snack mobile on the Carlswerk industrial campus in Cologne is intended to provide passers-by and office workers with snacks, sweets and drinks as required. Anyone who is hungry or thirsty only needs to wave and the rolling kiosk interrupts its loop through the area so that the customer can shop. Payment is made contactless – for example with a smartphone.

For safety reasons, the snack mobile is initially accompanied by a human supervisor. Nevertheless, Vodafone Germany boss Hannes Ametreiter was convinced of the future potential: “We are bringing autonomous vehicles from the test site into reality.”

The Snackmobil is by no means the only attempt to catapult the grocery trade in Germany into the digital age. Almost all major German retail chains are now looking for concepts for the supermarket of the future. In a smaller branch on Zeppelinstrasse in Cologne, Rewe is already testing shopping without a checkout under the name “Pick & Go”. When entering the store, customers have to check in via the app, then simply pack the items they want and leave. Cameras, sensors and computers do the rest. They independently register what is packed, create the invoice and debit the money.

However, the system is not yet activated for everyone. Tests are being carried out with selected employees until September in order to eradicate teething problems. The special thing about the Rewe concept: In contrast to similar Amazon branches, you can also shop normally in the branch, including payment at the checkout. Germany’s largest food retailer Edeka is testing a highly automated mini market at the train station in Renningen, Baden-Württemberg, which works without sales staff and is open around the clock. The products ordered by app or on touchscreens in the tiny shop are put together by gripping robots in two container-sized storage units behind the sales area and transported to a pick-up counter, where the customer receives them.

Up to 800 different products can be offered in this way. “A snack for the way to work or spontaneous weekly shopping, everything is possible and completely independent of the time,” said Edeka clerk and mini-shop owner Gisela Karow-Schäfer, praising the concept at the opening. Payment is made by card or online via an app.

The Tegut retail chain already operates three mini markets without sales staff in the Fulda area. Here, too, the customer first has to install an app with which he can open the door of the shop called Teo. In the store, he can then take the goods off the shelf himself and scan them. Payment is cashless by card or app. Tegut believes that a Teo branch can also be successful where classic sales concepts such as supermarkets do not make economic sense – for example in new building areas, in front of clinics and universities, at transport hubs or on company premises.

The Schwarz Group, one of the largest retailers in Europe with its chains Lidl and Kaufland, has also started initial tests with high-tech shops in Heilbronn. A rollout of the concepts at Kaufland or Lidl is not planned, the company is dampening expectations.

There are good reasons for the retail giants’ willingness to experiment. Because a good 60 years after the triumphant advance of the self-service supermarket began in Germany, it seems high time that the retail sector reinvented itself. After all, the competition is just a click away. The online trade in groceries received a powerful boost in the corona pandemic and its sales almost doubled. And more and more new competitors such as Gorillas, Flink or Knuspr are pushing their way into the rapidly growing market.

The advantages of online supermarkets are obvious: They are open 24 hours a day – and those who shop there do not have to queue at the checkout. The traditional shops have some catching up to do here, as the current study “Future of the cash register” by the Cologne retail research institute EHI and the Volksbank Raiffeisenbank subsidiary VR Payment shows.

The queues at the cash registers are therefore a thorn in the side of the customer. “Customers want to shop, not pay. They perceive queuing at the checkout primarily as a waste of time and a burden, ”says the study based on a representative survey of 1,000 consumers. Around half of customers are of the opinion that the supermarket of the future will no longer have cash registers and should be open around the clock.


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