Just how smart is smart shopping?

  • April 19, 2021
  • Steve Rogerson

Steve Rogerson tries out smart shopping at his local Sainsbury’s supermarket

Supermarket chain Sainsbury’s has been pestering me for ages to try its SmartShop shopping app. Because I write about this technology regularly, I thought it only fair that I give it a go.

So, yesterday, I downloaded the app onto my iPhone. This was mostly straightforward apart from it refusing to scan the barcode on my Nectar loyalty card making me key the card number in manually. This did not fill me with confidence given I was going to be scanning barcodes on groceries as I was shopping. That said, in the shop, the scanning aspect worked perfectly.

As an encouragement, the chain promises 500 extra Nectar points the first time you use SmartShop.

Before I continue, I should mention this was not strictly my first experience of smart retail. A few years ago, a rather prominent bar appeared in Brussels city centre that used smart technology. You paid for a card that could be topped up with more money, and served yourself from the beer taps. You touched the card next to the pump before you started pouring and it debited the amount. Though this was interesting for its novelty, it failed to create the relaxing in-bar atmosphere I enjoy, so I never went back. Others presumably felt the same as the next time I visited Brussels the bar had gone.

OK, back to Sainsbury’s. Now armed with the app, I set off on the pleasant sunny 3km stroll, mostly along the towpath of the Nottingham & Beeston Canal, to the store at Castle Boulevard in Nottingham, UK. This is a nice way to get in my daily workout in the Apple Health app; OK, I like gadgets.

I arrived at the store and read the instructions on the in-store display. I clicked start on the app and it told me I didn’t appear to be in a store. I had a good look round and concluded I was definitely inside the store; the shoppers, shelves packed with groceries and checkout tills were a bit of a giveaway. A bit of playing, and I convinced it I was actually in the shop.

Now, a claimed advantage is you can pack in your own shopping bag as you shop rather than having to use one of the shop’s baskets or trolleys. This actually proved to be a disadvantage, but I will come back to that later.

I got my bag out and went to get my first item, a Cornish pasty for lunch. I then hit numerous problems. First, this is the Covid world so you have to wear a face mask in store, which means the face recognition feature on my iPhone didn’t work, so I found myself regularly having to key in my pin code while I shopped.

Secondly, it takes a fair bit of dexterity to hold shopping bag, iPhone and Cornish pasty and then rotate the Cornish pasty into a position where you can scan the barcode. Later, I developed the method of repositioning the item on the shelf so the barcode was facing me and then scanning it before putting it in my bag.

The screen correctly showed what I had added and the price. As I continued shopping, the other items added themselves to the screen and there was a running total at the top. All good.

As you have probably guessed from this, Sainsbury’s is not using the latest smart shopping technology with cameras and sensors that pick up what you put in your bag as you shop, but rather so-called scan-and-go technology. Actually, in Sainsbury’s case they don’t even have the “and-go” bit. I was disappointed to find I still had to queue at a checkout, albeit a special SmartShop self-checkout.

I scanned the code at the checkout and the screen told me the amount, correctly, and said it was time to pay. I tried but failed with Apple Pay, but that was probably me, so I did it with a contactless card. Well, not initially as the screen turned red and said an assistant would be with you to help shortly.

And she was. The problem was the very nice bottle of Robinson’s Old Tom 8.5% ale. She had to click a few things to verify I was over 18.

And that was it, until I got home and discovered my Cornish pasty was a little flattened. Usually when I shop, I pack my shopping bag carefully at the checkout so the hard items are at the bottom. To achieve the same with this system, I am going to have to plan my route round the store so I buy and pack the hard items first.

The conclusion from me is a big thumbs down. First, one of the advantages of smart shopping is avoiding the queues at checkout. A system where you still have to go to a checkout defeats the object. What is wrong with authorising your credit card at the beginning and then just walking out at the end of the shop?

Come on Sainsbury’s, you can manage this, others have. And while you are at it, the credit card can be used for age verification at the same time. Add to this, the inconvenience of walking round the shop with your smartphone out all the time, having to position items on shelves to scan them and working out a route round the store so you buy the hard items first makes the whole experience just a little too stressful. Many improvements are needed before I try this again. And it didn’t even give me my 500 Nectar points.

PS: About a week after this article was published, the 500 Nectar points amazingly turned up, followed a couple of days later with an email inviting me to do it again and earn even more Nectar points. I deleted the email.