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The fast-changing world of shopping

12:00am | & News

The way we shop has changed a great deal in the past 100 years, and chances are it’s not done changing yet.

Our grandparents would set out with their shopping list to visit a number of shops in their local community – the butcher for meat, the baker for bread, greengrocer for fruit and veg, and so on. In each shop the proprietor or an assistant, who they probably knew well, would serve them. That involved collecting the items they wanted, possibly weighing out or measuring the right amount before passing them across the counter and tallying up the bill.

Our grandparents were most likely on foot and visiting the various shops would no doubt take longer, but there would also be opportunity for what we now call ‘social interaction’ – a good old natter – with the various shopkeepers and other friends and neighbours met along the way.

Just a century ago, in 1916, the first self-service grocery stores selling a wider range of produce began to open in America, later franchised into ‘supermarket chains’ and spreading around the world. In these stores shoppers had more choice and could select their own products directly from shelves, paying for them at a checkout.

Initially these bigger stores were still in towns and cities, but as the stores became superstores and more people had access to their own transport they started appearing on the edges of towns and then on designated out-of-town retail parks. Now, instead of popping out each day for a few supplies, people could do a weekly ‘big shop’, buying all their goods in the same superstore and loading up the car with enough supplies to see them through the week.

And if that all seems like too much hard work, we can now do our grocery shopping online from a home computer, clicking the items we want from our favourite retailer, paying at the online checkout and waiting for them to be delivered to our door.

In an extension to that, one retailer will now sell you nifty electronic buttons for particular products which you can leave around your home ready to push when you’re running low. For example, you buy a button for your favourite brand of loo roll and set it up to automatically order a dozen more. Stick the button in your bathroom and when you notice you’re running low on loo roll, just push the button and the retailer will send out a dozen for delivery to your home.

If you still visit the supermarket in person, you can now opt for the self-service checkout, passing your own goods across the scanner without the need to speak to anyone at all. The way we pay is also changing, with cash becoming a thing of the past. Now it’s all debit cards, pin codes and contactless payment. Just wave your plastic at the card reader and the money comes out of your account.

In the latest development you won’t even need to do that. One retailer – the same one that does the buttons – is now trialling a grocery shop with no checkouts at all. You just walk in, select what you need from the shelves, and walk out again!

You need to have an account with the retailer and download an ‘app’ to your smartphone. When you enter the store you pass your phone over a scanner to activate the app. It then monitors what you select from the shelves and when you leave the store it adds up your bill, deducts the money from your account and sends an electronic receipt to your phone. No need to queue at the till, or speak to anyone!

This new “Just Walk Out” concept is currently being tested in America, with the first stores due to open to the public early next year.

It’s all a long way from popping to the butchers for a pound of minced beef then nipping next door to the greengrocers for the onions to go with it. Some people hanker for the old days, when shopping seemed more personal and enjoyable, even if it took a little longer. Thankfully the best small local shops still survive, and will do as long as there are customers out there who value and use them.

Similarly, the ultra-high-tech “Just Walk Out” shops will only take off if enough customers use them, but hopefully there will still be enough options to suit all our shopping needs.

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