Dutch customers can now pay at a branch of the Albert Heijn supermarket using their phone or customer card, without needing a debit card. This is a first in the Netherlands, but there are already more advanced contactless payment systems outside the country.
It all looks really easy: instead of waiting in a line at the checkout, you simply hold your smartphone or a special card against the price tag. A beep sounds, a green light flashes, and you can put the groceries in your bag. Customers can now shop even faster thanks to this system in the AH To Go store in the Academic Medical Centre (AMC) in Amsterdam.
Albert Heijn introduced self-scanning and self-checkouts over a decade ago, but these still involved going to a cash register after gathering your groceries. The new system removes this last step; you scan the goods on the shelf, then put them straight in your bag. Ten minutes after the last scan, the total amount is debited from your account.
The system uses near field communication (NFC) technology, which sends radio signals to a receiver a short distance away. In this case, the receivers are the price tags, which all have a unique 'fingerprint'. The card exchanges data with the price tag to conclude the purchase. Albert Heijn has developed special price tags with NFC technology.
Many Android phones have a built-in NFC tag. The iPhone also has one, but it has not yet been widely released by manufacturer Apple, so the new payment system is currently unavailable on an iPhone.
Easy payment does mean handing over a vast amount of data to the grocer. You have to register your bank account and phone number to use the app, and Albert Heijn keeps exact track of everything you buy. This does mean, however, that you can participate in a loyalty scheme for fruit, croissants and coffee, among other things. ‘We offer a free cup of coffee after you’ve paid for five, and the whole system is completely automated,’ says Albert Heijn spokesperson Anoesjka Aspeslagh. A record is kept of all your other purchases, too. 'In the future we may be able to use this information for personal discounts, in the same way we currently do with the bonus card'.
SENSORS MONITOR WHAT YOU BUY
This contactless payment system may be a first in the Netherlands, but elsewhere in the world there are some even more advanced supermarkets. A store was opened in Shanghai, China in 2017 where you can scan the labels and go on your way. The idea is very similar to that of the Dutch supermarket chain, but AH was beaten to the mark. In addition, the store in question uses this system exclusively, whereas in AH To Go stores the traditional checkout system will remain optional.
Things are even more advanced in the USA, where you don’t have to scan anything: technology takes care of it all. Web giant Amazon opened a store early this year where you only have to scan an app on your phone when you walk into the store through a gate. Cameras monitor who you are, where you go in the store, and sensors on the shelves detect what you take. When you leave the store, your balance is calculated, and the bill sent to your credit card registered at Amazon.
The technology had a few teething troubles; the 'smart' cameras often confused people with similar physiques or faces. Kids also threw a spanner in the works by taking things from one shelf and putting them back somewhere else.
‘We don’t think this system is suitable for us, because at Amazon Go you can only enter the store by a single entrance where you have to scan your phone. AH To Go often has very wide entrances, and the aim of our system is to help people get in and out of the store as quickly as possible. Take the bread department, for example: it is right on the edge of the store, so our system means that anybody wanting a croissant doesn’t even have to enter the store.’
Doesn’t such a simple system make life easy for shoplifters? ‘The beeps, green lights, crowds in the store and presence of staff create a lot of social control,' Aspeslagh thinks. ‘Our experiences with self-scanning also show that shoplifting is not a major issue.’
Aspeslagh thinks that this system will help prevent delays. ‘The contactless payment only takes a second, so you’re in and out in a flash. You can also use it to pay directly for your coffee, which will avoid the long counter queues common in places without such a system and improve customer flows.’
Albert Heijn has no plans to implement this system in its ‘standard' stores. 'AH To Go is all about speed, which makes this system ideal. Speed is less important in standard stores.' Next Monday, the system will be introduced in an AH To Go store in Amsterdam Central Station ‘This store is very different to the one in the AMC, so it’s an exciting step. We want to see how it goes, and if the system appeals to customers. It will then be implemented in all AH To Go stores.'
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