Europe: The Arrival of the East

Chinese-style kiosk/stores without staff have their place in the retail scheme of things, but they are just part of the digital picture
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Posted May 31, 2019

The East is headed West. In the U.S., you may have Amazon Go and the walk-in-and-take-it-off-the-shelf-and-leave mentality, but in China, kiosks that allow you to scan products with your phone and then pay at the end of the shopping trip using the same device are relatively commonplace. Now, they’re coming to Europe and as an example of what lies ahead, the Valora pop-up in Zurich’s central station stands proud.

Valora, in case it has passed you by, is a Swiss convenience retailer and therefore intent, largely, on the grab ‘n go crowd. Staff-free shops, where entrance, scanning and payment are all conducted via a smartphone app, might make perfect sense in high footfall locations. The fight for the space it occupies (and others like it around the Swiss rail network) has, by all reports, been pretty intense, proving perhaps that quality space will always be just that. But will staff-free stores fit the commuter bill?

Well, maybe. Travelers heading into town or heading home via a rail station are not inclined to browse so as long as the technology is up to scratch (there are many tales of phone-scan stores in China where merchandise has to be scanned two or three times before it registers and the whole thing can be cumbersome) then why not use it? After all, why join a line and waste precious minutes? The problem is that there is equally a counter movement, in food retail in particular, that puts service and taking your time to the fore (the new Eataly store in Paris or the Market Hall in London’s Victoria both demonstrate this). Technology certainly has a place here, just not to speed things up.

The arrival in Europe (and ahead of Amazon Go) of Chinese-style staff-free stores is certainly a talking point, but their use will be very specific. While they will definitely have their place in the scheme of things, they will be just part of the overall picture. Scan—and--go is not the be-all-and-end-all, in spite of what tech vendors and snake-oil salesmen may say.  

John Ryan is a journalist covering the retail sector, a role he has fulfilled for more than a decade. As well as being the European Editor of VMSD magazine, he writes for a broad range of publications in the U.K., the U.S. and Germany with a focus on in-store marketing, display and layout, as well as the business of store architecture and design. In a previous life, he was a buyer for C&A, based in London and then Düsseldorf, Germany. He lives and works in London.