Seoul’s Uncommon Store could be the first to get visitors energized about the future of cashierless stores.

Last year we wrote about the fact that Amazon’s investment in automated retail clearly looked set to benefit from the pandemic. Indeed, the company has just opened its first international store, in Londons Ealing Broadway. It also stood to reason that other brands would be quick to follow up on what was a somewhat underinvested area of retail near-futurism, often in tandem with the e-commerce giant. In the last few months, airport retailers Cibo Express Gourmet Markets and Hudson News have been some of the first to adopt Amazons white-label version of the ‘just walk out’ technology that powers its Go and Fresh stores.

Others are looking beyond Amazon’s ecosystem. The last half year or so has seen French retailer Monoprix testing cashierless stores, KFC adding contactless collection lockers in Japan and Dunkin’ musing its own checkout-free pilot; meanwhile, in our home base of the Netherlands, AiFi recently announced a partnership with convenience chain Wundermart to create up to 1,000 new unattended locations across the brand’s international store network. Cashierless checkout start-ups like Standard Cognition have also found it easier to raise money, with a $150 million Series C round lead by SoftBank’s Vision Fund 2 announced earlier this year, while others, such as Berlin’s Nomitri, have chosen 2021 as the right moment to emerge from stealth mode.

Thus far, however, there’s been little to indicate how this inflexion point in the future of FMCG retail will transform store design, other than the removal of checkout lanes and their attendant impulse-purchase-driving infrastructures. However, one early signal can be read in the launch of the Uncommon Store, part of the new The Hyundai Seoul shopping centre, designed by Atelier Archi.Mosphere. A collaboration between Hyundai IT&E and Amazon, it treats this new format with far more ambition than any of the latter’s proprietary spaces. Given the hyper-active phraseology surrounding automated retail (‘grab and go’ and ‘just walk out’) most extent examples copy the cramped, circuitous floor plans of their analogue forebears. Similarly, while one of the key benefits to retail operators of these data rich stores is reactive stock keeping, something that should result in a more tailored, and thus streamlined, product offer, many still carry an overwhelming number of SKUs . . . not exactly the sort of environment that encourages throughflow, or a shopping experience that prioritizes efficiency. A store that knows what you want shouldn’t need to give you so many options.

Whatever your feelings about Atelier Archi.Mosphere’s retro-futurist look, the maximalism of the laminate, acrylic and metal treatment – apparently inspired by 1960s theatre frontages – only works in such a small space because it's countered by the lack of freestanding units and limited (but curated) product selection. As the logo above the store indicates, you should shoot through this space like an arrow. That interior therefore has to make an impression at speed, whilst also getting out of your way. If the destiny of convenience retail is automation, surely the design needs to be as dynamic as the stores they serve?