The UK’s first till-free grocery store has opened its doors in London, but owner Sainsbury’s has been warned to not to underestimate the “power of human interaction”.

In a month that saw the proposed merger between Sainsbury’s and Asda shelved thanks to a bruising report by the Competition & Markets Authority warning it would lead to customers facing price hikes, the new store is part of a drive towards increased convenience for shoppers.

Customers at the Holborn Circus outlet must download the supermarket’s Smartshop app, meaning they can quickly purchase items via Google Pay and Apple Pay, without the need to queue at a till – which have been removed. Only a helpdesk manned by a single member of staff is available for those who still wish to pay using cash or credit/debit cards.

The new system is being tested at the store for three months, with the downsides for certain customers being that the sale of alcohol and tobacco has been halted due to the current inability to manage age verification.

Clodagh Moriarty, Sainsbury’s Group Chief Digital Officer said: “This is an experiment rather than a new format for us – it hasn’t been done in the UK before and we’re really excited to understand how our customers respond to the app experience. We’ll be with our customers and colleagues all the way over the coming months, iterating continuously based on their feedback before we decide if, how and where we make this experience more widely available.”

However, retail expert Manu Tyagi, from Infosys Consulting, highlighted a potentially difficult balancing act now faced by retailers such as Sainsbury’s as technology continues to dramatically change the way we shop.

“The launch of Sainsbury’s till-less store in London reflects a wider trend in the retail industry, which sees many retailers replacing existing employees with AI,” he said.

“The last year alone has seen some fascinating developments such as the Amazon Go concept of ‘checkout-less’ supermarkets where, thanks to a host of sensor and deep-learning technologies, shoppers can browse, fill their baskets, and leave without queueing up to pay.

“These advances are unarguably impressive, and spell a bright future for the retail industry. However, we’re finding that some consumers still prefer the reassurance of human interaction – and this need should not be ignored or underestimated.

“For instance, in 2015 Morrisons reintroduced human-staffed checkouts for small shopping baskets – a move away from the wave of automated, self-service tills that have swept the nation. It turns out that people quite enjoy their everyday interactions with the smiling, familiar checkout operator; advice from a knowledgeable shop assistant; or just bumping into a friend in the local supermarket queue.”

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