A World Without Check-out Queues Could Become a Reality

Posted by Rachel Riederer

At Café X, a San Francisco coffee shop that opened in January, coffee drinkers order and customize their morning caffeine like they do at coffeehouses all around the country. But there's one important difference: the baristas selling the half-caff soy cappuccinos at Café X are robots. The streamlined checkout model at Café X is part of a larger trend: from the café to the big box store, new payment technologies are changing the way we checkout.

Henry Hu, the founder and CEO of Café X, came up with the idea for the robot-powered coffeehouse while standing in line for coffee. While studying at Babson college, he spent a lot of time waiting in coffee-shop lines. “I observed what the baristas were doing,” he recalls, “a lot of their time was spent moving cups around, and that just doesn't seem like a very productive thing for humans to do.” But making the perfect latte over and over again did seem like a perfect job for a robot.

So at Café X, customers place their order at a touchscreen kiosk, or through a smart-phone app. They select their preferred coffee bean, milk, and other fixings, pay at the kiosk and receive a code for the order, and then the sets of robotic arms get to work. When the drink is ready, customers enter their code at the pick-up area and the mechanical barista hands over the drink.


Though the drink-making has been automated, Café X does still have human employees working at the shop, just doing different kinds of work. Hu explains that he believes automation only makes sense when it is "assisting with a highly repetitive, low productivity task-like moving cups around or slicing 300 tomatoes a day." For other tasks, Café X has old-fashioned human employees. They clean and refill the machines, work on adjusting the various drink recipes, and engage with customers.

Other retailers are also experimenting with automation that goes way beyond the self-checkout lane. In Seattle, Amazon has opened a high-tech brick and mortar convenience store where shelves equipped with sensors and wifi interact with customers’ phones to keep track of the items they pick up as they move through the store. When they’re ready, customers just walk out, and the shop charges their account. For now, the store, called Amazon Go, is available only to Amazon employees, but the retail giant says it plans to open the shop to the broader public this year.

Greg Burch, VP of Strategic Initiatives at Ingenico, says these check-out changes are going to continue to rise. “You’ll start seeing it pop up everywhere this year,” he says. Some companies are experimenting with retail kiosks—vending machines on steroids. Burch predicts that the next industry to end the traditional register line will be high-end lodging. “With the technology where it is, hotels really could know, from what time you get off the plane or what time you get onto a shuttle bus, exactly when you’re going to arrive. Why not greet you at the door with your room key right when you walk in? That’s the kind of experience we’re going to be seeing.”

All of these technologies rely on some degree of consumer tracking and data collection—the key, says Burch, will be finding the sweet spot where merchants are offering a beneficial and customers feel it is worthwhile to share their personal data. “It’s important for users to feel like they’re not handing over a lot of data that they don't want you to have. So you have to add value—maybe you’re recommending things they might like to buy, or reminding them about something that they wanted but might have forgotten—it’s all about what is going to make their life easier.”

As retail technology makes shopping quicker and more efficient, there’s one thing shoppers may miss: that quiet time spent waiting in the checkout line to dream up their next big idea.

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