UK Supermarkets Adopt Automated Solutions to Combat Labor Shortage


As United Kingdom grocers struggle against a historically challenging labor market, many are accelerating their automation efforts. On Monday (Sept. 20), it was reported that Germany-based discount grocery giant Aldi is trying out its first checkout-less supermarket in London, and on Tuesday (Sept. 20), Asda, a United Kingdom grocery chain with 645 locations, announced that it will begin testing out autonomous delivery with self-driving vans next year.

Aldi’s checkout-free store will invite shoppers to scan their mobile app as they enter, and the store will keep track of the items that they pick up (presumably using artificial intelligence [AI] computer vision technology), charging them and emailing a receipt after they exit, reports the Independent. This shopping journey resembles that of Amazon’s “Just Walk Out” technology, which came to the U.K. in March with a new Amazon Fresh store in West London.

For Aldi’s part, the grocer’s foray into automation comes not at checkout but in the delivery process, as across the country grocers and other retailers feel the impacts of the truck driver shortage. Self-driving vehicle company Wayve announced that the grocer will be testing out its autonomous vans to fulfill delivery orders early in 2022, with human drivers overseeing the process to ensure its safety for the duration of the year-long trial.

“We want to explore how autonomous vehicle technology can enhance our operating model as well as the experience for our colleagues and customers,” Simon Gregg, vice president of online grocery at Asda, said in a statement. “Over the course of the last year, demand for online groceries has grown significantly, and we continue to push new boundaries in terms of retail innovation and technologies that can help us develop the most sustainable last mile solutions for our business.”

Read more: Grocery Roundup: In The UK, Labor Shortage Compromises Christmas Dinner

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By the Numbers

London-based nonprofit the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) reported earlier this month that, in the final week of August, there were 1.7 million unfilled job openings, measured by active job advertisements, with recent weeks showing the highest number of vacancies since the end of 2020.

Additionally, the United Kingdom’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that, between June and August, unfilled openings rose above 1 million for the first time since the office began keeping track. In this period, vacancies rose 35% across industries, and vacancies in accommodation and food service activities rose 75%.

chart UK vacancies

Source: Office for National Statistics – Vacancy Survey

The demand for self-checkout is there in grocery. Research from PYMNTS’ study Today’s Self-Service Shopping Journey: The New Retail Expectation, created in collaboration with Toshiba, finds that a third of grocery customers used self-checkout options for their most recent in-store purchase. This portion is significantly higher (28%) than the cross-industry average.

What the Experts Are Saying

“It’s clear that users prefer to have a contactless experience,” Ariel Shemesh, co-founder and CEO of retail computer vision provider KanduAI, told PYMNTS in an interview, reflecting on the changes that have happened in the space since the start of the pandemic. “Self-checkout definitely got a lot of users who used to go to the cashiers, and they didn’t really mind waiting in line, but they got acquainted with this technology and now they basically demand it.”

Read more: 3 Friction Points Slowing the Adoption of Self-Checkout for Grocers

Regarding autonomous delivery, Beth Flippo, chief technology officer for Drone Express, spoke with PYMNTS about how automated technologies can allow grocers to adjust to the trend of consumers placing smaller orders more frequently, a shift that could exacerbate the labor challenges of delivery.

She explained, “Most people in the country … are buying food in smaller quantities at a higher frequency … People buy throughout the week, there’s a lot less waste, and they buy what they need, when they want it.”