Have Aldi and Muji mastered cashierless shopping?

Ola Podgorska, Lead UX Designer
02 May 2022

Yesterday we were coming home from an exhibition in central London, and the way home took us past Muji on Oxford Street.

At the entrance, a lady greeted us and gave us a discount offer card, assuming we could use it at the till. But when it came to purchasing, the attendant told us that to use this discount, we needed to do the check out ourselves.

Bemused, we fumbled around until we found a spot where we could stand quietly and get through the scanning process. Imagine standing inside a tiny store, during a busy sale, and trying to scan items with your phone – and putting them into your own shopping bag. 

In theory, it sounds so easy. In practice, it feels incredibly awkward. There are no designated spaces to do this scanning, no ‘counter’ – you’re holding the clothes in your basket, your phone in the same hand, while trying to hold up a bag and scan then bag each item. It essentially looks as if you’re shoplifting (what if you miss scanning a QR code for each item?). And then the app freezes. 

This is the exact experience we had. We decided to go to the till to speak to someone… and then suddenly the app jumped back to life, showing us our full list of items, with the discount applied. 

After the purchase was made (using Apple Pay on my phone), it did make me think, would the two attendants at the door checking the receipts be enough to intervene, if we were shoplifting? 

This was my first cashless shopping experience ‘in real life’. I didn’t feel digitally savvy. In all honesty, it felt a little too close to criminal activity. The next week, we were in Greenwich (at approximately 6:30pm, on a particularly frosty evening) and passed by the Aldi Shop ‘n Go, so we decided to compare the cashless checkout process – ready for round two.

On arrival at the Aldi entrance, we were asked by a staff member to stand in a queue while we figured out how to download and register the app, without which we were not allowed to enter.

In all honesty, if I had known I’d needed to do this before entering, I most likely would have done the download and registration beforehand. While the app took us through a ‘timed’ introduction (you are forced to spend a certain amount of time at each step, so you read it carefully, before being able to go to the next step). Excellent UX in theory, but in the harsh reality of a January evening, it was quite unpleasant – my freezing fingers swiping numbly from one step to another.

The last step requires you to enter your email address. The crucial bit that’s not mentioned is that the email will be used to send you a verification code. So, if the email you enter is not one accessible to you on your mobile device, you’ll be informed by one of the helpful assistants that you’ll have to go through the entire download and registration process again.

Feeling naive, we nevertheless persisted, and eventually managed to get the app registered and to enter the store. Thereafter, things got a LOT easier. All you need to do is place your items into a shopping basket (which are available right by the turnstile entrance). No need to scan. Even if you put an item back on the shelf, the cameras in-store pick this up. The shopping part was actually very pleasant, quick, and easy. Until…you decide to leave the store with your goods. I was told I can simply walk out with my shopping in hand, through the exit turnstiles.

When leaving, I asked the attendants what to do with the shopping basket.

They looked around in panic, then another one said - “oh you’re supposed to bring your own bag, didn’t you?”. The other one quickly came to the rescue "oh there are bags inside you can take if you need” and pointed out a rack of bags in the centre of the store. The bags were inside the shop (not at the entrance as you come in, where the baskets are). 

No one made any effort to actually help me get one. Luckily, after my Muji experience, I had my own so I then proceeded to transfer all my shopping into the bag, while standing in the exit/entrance hall, again, feeling very awkward, inadequate and hustled by the ever watchful ‘shopping guardians’ who kept turning people away at the entrance if they didn’t have the app installed.

As I was waiting for a bus, I kept checking my app to see how much my shopping cost. I had NO idea what I had spent. I was told it would take approx 5-10 minutes for the items to load and the total price to show. 8pm that evening, still no receipt.

The receipt finally arrived at 1:10am at night, with an app notification and email.

Is a cashless experience really a better user experience?

In theory, yes. Once you’re set up, you have the app installed and are familiar with the process, of course it’s easier to just dump stuff in your bag and leave. 

But in practice, there are still hurdles to overcome:

The physical

The retailers who simply ‘introduce’ the app experience to their existing shops have clearly not considered the physicality of the shop – replacing the till experience means having to reconsider how individuals actually shop (not everyone will come prepared knowing the process, and some shoppers will still want to use a basket, while ‘cashless’ shoppers should be advised against using baskets). Airports are an excellent analogous environment to look to in terms of packing and unpacking items from bags – because user experience is not just the digital experience, but the full customer service journey.

The digital

It’s fine to pop into a store and purchase a few items when convenient, but what about a full ‘weekly’ shop? The Aldi experience doesn’t really allow you to plan your spending, unless you go in with your own calculator (or the onus is on the customer to be familiar with prices!). You walk out of a store having no idea how much you’ve actually paid, and find out the ‘surprise’ a few hours later. This is definitely for people who have money in their bank accounts, who don’t have to worry about sticking to a specific budget.

The emotional

Not everyone is digitally-savvy, and as retailers drive towards digital maturity with their customers, they should consider one of the most important tenets of user experience – accessibility for some means improved accessibility for all. Emotions drive our experiences and it’s important retailers don’t exclude anyone by making them feel inadequate because they’re not familiar or experienced with technology.

While we waited for our bus, I noticed a little boy who was waiting outside with his dog for his mum to finish shopping. When she came out, I asked her what she thought of the experience: 

“It was good. Surprised not to see items on the list… it’s a weird feeling.”

When I asked a couple leaving the store why they like shopping at Aldi, their answer surprised me:

“We like it because it’s really clean.” 

Before forging blindly onwards into the digital future, I would recommend retailers to do a little more on the ground user research, testing the end-to-end user experience properly (on and offline), to make sure that they’re not missing out on improvements within their current retail experience, to avoid losing valuable engagement points (cleanliness seems like an easy win!). 

It’s also worth noting that the ‘cashless’ experience is different at crucial points to their existing shopping and checkout experience, and they should be treated as such. The digital experience is not simply an ‘add-on’, it needs a more considered approach. To create successful cashless retail experiences, retailers will need to work harder at engaging users emotionally via the technology they provide – focusing on full-service design, not just a fraction of the experience.