Ok, I am just going to come out and say it because it needs to be said — the opening of the new checkout-free Tesco store in the High Holborn neighborhood of London is already and undoubtedly will remain the top retail headline of 2021.
For those unfamiliar, here is a recent video tour my partner Anne Mezzenga and I took of the store that highlights exactly why I feel comfortable in saying that:
What Tesco and Trigo have done together in the store since they first cemented their partnership in 2019 is nothing short of remarkable. Together they took an existing store, retrofitted it, and said to those living and working in High Holborn, from this point forward, the only way to shop this store is through a completely autonomous checkout-free experience.
It takes guts to walk on the long branch of innovation like that and to have no fear of falling.
But it also shouldn’t come as a surprise, either.
The High Holborn store was a project over two years in the making, and ever since I first visited Trigo’s lab store in Tel Aviv back in 2019, I had a feeling we were on the verge of seeing something great.
As I sat there in Trigo’s 700 square foot lab and interviewed Trigo Co-Founder and CTO Daniel Gabay, I was struck by how simply and articulately Daniel and the team relayed what artificial intelligence computer vision was all about and, in the end, what it would require from the retail industry to make it happen (to listen to my full interview with Daniel, click here).
And, now here we are almost two years to the day, and Trigo and Tesco have done something in the checkout-free retail space that not even Amazon can claim — a fully retrofitted store.
So, as I sit back now and reflect on everything I have learned in Tel Aviv, from my time designing “stores of the future” for Target, to what I witnessed in the live tour above, I was through the moon excited when Trigo asked me to share my takeaways from my virtual visit of the new store.
Here then are my collective thoughts on what the retail industry should take away from the opening of Tesco’s High Holborn store:
#1 — Concept Work Matters
High Holborn wasn’t Tesco and Trigo’s first rodeo together.
Far from it.
Their first experiment actually came by way of a company store that Trigo began powering autonomously in 2020. There the two sides likely worked out the kinks to the technology, further refined it, and ultimately made it what it is today.
It is an approach not all that dissimilar to the approach Amazon took to launching Amazon Go. Prior to launching Amazon Go to the public in January 2018, Amazon Go sat in the basement of Amazon’s headquarters and was only open to employees for concept testing.
Concept testing is a smart approach. It means taking an idea and trialing it in a safe space, outside of the mainstream of operations, where, all too often in retail, good ideas go to die an early death.
Tesco didn’t do that.
It rightly gave computer vision technology the space to grow and, as a result, Tesco is now likely far afield of its competition in terms of understanding the puts and takes that come with the technology, and especially in knowing how to retrofit the tech into an existing store — something likely on the minds of every legacy retailer out there.
#2 — They Did It With No Safety Net
Perhaps the thing I love most about Tesco’s High Holborn store is that Tesco and Trigo dared to walk out on a tightrope with no safety net. While many of their competitors are opening up hybrid operations (i.e. conventional checkouts alongside checkout-free experiences, likely owing to their fears surrounding point #1 above), Tesco and Trigo said to hell with unnecessary risk aversion and took the smart risk by going all in to understand the next logical step in their joint experiment together.
The High Holborn store was designed to be shopped autonomously right from the moment the customer enters the door and scans a barcode on his or her phone. Or said another way, once the store opened up, there was no turning back.
And, the brilliance of this approach is that Tesco and Trigo are not “half-pregnant” in understanding what it all could mean in the long-run for Tesco’s customers. If the reception is great, which it no doubt could be, then they have a home run on their hands. And even if it is not, the option value of going to a hybrid model down the road still exists, too.
The way Tesco and Trigo did it, however, they smartly get to find out how high is high first.
Contrast this approach with that of others in the space, who are likely struggling to communicate a new way to shop in an existing store as the majority of the store’s customers continue to wait in lines, and one begins to wonder if these other players (and their retailers) will be left asking themselves, “What do we really have here?”
Tesco and Trigo had the smarts and the guts to be more scientific method in their approach and, for that, they should be commended.
#3 — The Pre-Shop Authorization Is Important
There’s another aspect of the commitment to a fully autonomous experience that will come to matter more and more over time — and that is what I am now dubbing the “pre-shop authorization.”
By that, I mean that to enter the High Holborn store, one has to scan a barcode within the Tesco app to unlock a set of controlled gates into the store, and then customers can go and take whatever they want off the shelves and pay electronically as they exit, just like they would when taking an Uber or a Lyft.
This process of “authorizing” the checkout-free experience upfront is paramount for two reasons.
First, it makes for a better customer experience because customers can take out their phones on the front end of their experiences and never need to bother with them again. Contrast this with a checkout-free experience where the barcode is scanned at the end of the experience, and then you have customers fumbling with their phones while they likely are still holding products in their hands.
Second, and perhaps even more importantly, a pre-shop authorization probably helps to reduce theft relative to other approaches. Customers are forced to identify themselves upon entry, and, unlike a post-shop authorization with no controlled exit, the setup stands less of a chance of being gamed.
For example, in a system that requires the customer to tap a standalone, free-standing stanchion somewhere in the store, there is nothing to prevent people from faux tapping — i.e. pretending to tap under the guise that they have downloaded the mobile shopping app when, in fact, they have not.
No one wants that, and least of all grocers who are already operating on razor thin margins.
#4 — The Tech Is Now European Battle Tested
The other shrewd thing about Trigo’s go-to-market strategy is that the company deliberately attacked the European market first due to the complexity of the grocery market relative to the U.S. and also because of the stricter laws surrounding data privacy.
Tesco, as much as or even more than many other grocers, has been around the block. They have a long history and incredibly high standards. Combine this fact then with trying to deploy a technology that tracks people and products in space under the guidelines of GDPR, and that makes for one hell of a hot fire against which Trigo decided to place its feet.
Yet, for all intents and purposes, it appears Trigo has risen to the challenge, both in High Holborn as well as in a new store it debuted with the REWE Group in Germany just a few weeks later.
And lord knows that Germany’s data governance requirements are nothing to sneeze at either, seeing as how they are some of the toughest in the world.
#5 — There’s Only One Place To Go And That’s Up
For this last point, I will again use Amazon as a reference point. In 2018, Amazon debuted Amazon Go in an approximately 3,000 square foot retail footprint. Two years later in 2020, it debuted Go Grocery, which was give or take 10,000 selling square feet. Amazon essentially tripled the footprint for its technology in just two years.
Trigo appears to be on the same path.
During the demonstration of the High Holborn store, Trigo CEO Michael Gabay hinted that they plan to take the technology to 10,000 square feet in 2022. Comparing this timeline to what I just described, that plan seems entirely reasonable and also quite . . . exciting.
For it means that by 2022 not only will we see much larger retrofitted autonomous shopping experiences, but that the full-scale checkout-free grocery store experience of the future also isn’t likely far behind.
In a technology space that has been littered with grand claims and false promises, the prospects here now feel very real.
Tesco and Trigo, by getting behind the idea of concept work and experimentation early on, now likely have a two year head start on the rest of their retail brethren, a head start that heralds a brighter future, and one with far less wasted time standing in lines at the grocery store on the horizon.
Chris Walton is the Co-Founder and current Editor-in-Chief of Omni Talk