This week, the first ever cashierless store opened in the UK: a Sainsbury’s Local supermarket that is experimenting with using the brand’s Scan, Pay & Go smartphone technology instead of tills and cashiers.

This is one of the many innovations that have led some experts to speculate that the UK – along with other regions of the world like Eastern Europe and South-East Asia – is rapidly heading towards a cashless economy.

While we are still a long way from seeing the first cashless societies emerge – if they even do – it is true that contactless payment technologies like mobile payment are seeing increasing adoption all over the world, as brands find innovative ways to allow their customers to book, pay and check out with more convenience.

When delivered effectively, these alternative payment methods have the ability to change the offline user experience as well as online, as they radically transform the way we carry out everyday tasks like paying for groceries, buying petrol or gas, eating at restaurants and more.

Here are six areas in which mobile payment is transforming the offline user experience.

Shopping

Three years after Amazon wowed and unnerved the world with its vision of a cashierless supermarket, the technology has arrived in the UK – thanks to mobile payment. Earlier this week, Sainsbury’s kicked off a three-month trial of a cashierless supermarket in Holborn Circus, London, where customers can use its Scan, Pay & Go app to scan and pay for purchases on their smartphones. They then confirm their purchases by scanning a QR code before they exit the store.

A man scans a bottle of orange juice with his smartphone in Sainsbury's Holborn Circus store.

Image: Sainsbury’s

Sainsbury’s has previously trialled the Scan, Pay & Go app in six other locations, where shoppers could use it to pay for items and skip the queue at checkout – though tills were still an option in each store. The app also allows shoppers to scan their shopping lists at home and receive a map that leads them to their items around the store (I for one could use this every time I go shopping).

Sainsbury’s is not the only UK supermarket to be trialling mobile scanning and payment, with Tesco also conducting a trial of its similarly-named “Scan Pay Go” app in June 2018. The trial was carried out by 100 staff at a purpose-built Express convenience store in Welwyn Garden City, where Tesco’s headquarters are located. However, Tesco has yet to trial the same technology with consumers.

Eating out

Eating out is all good fun until it comes time to pay the bill. Diners struggle to attract the attention of serving staff, fumble for their wallets, struggle to work out the tip or scrape together some change, and are often stuck waiting for a server to return with their bank card or to bring the card machine. All of this is to say nothing of eating out in a big group, which has all of the above problems plus the added struggle of dividing up the bill and either pooling funds or having a dozen people try to pay with different methods.

Numerous companies have taken on the challenge of trying to improve on this process by developing a mobile app that allows customers to reserve a table in advance, open up a tab, pay the bill in advance or at any time during the meal, and add on a tip – all with their smartphones.

One such company is OpenTable, a restaurant reservations business that added mobile payment to its offerings in 2014. Founded in 1998, OpenTable was already well-established in the restaurants space before it ventured into mobile payment, seating 14 million diners a month across more than 31,000 restaurants at the time of introducing payment functionality.

OpenTable’s CEO, Christa Quarles, noted in a 2016 interview with Fortune magazine that “it’s easier to get the diner to opt in [to mobile payment] at the time of the reservation. … [T]he whole point of OpenTable Payments is take out the moment at the end of meal where you are asking, “What’s the damage? What’s the bill?””

A newer entrant to the space is startup Allset, a restaurant reservation and pre-ordering service based in California. It originated as Settle, a mobile payment service that allowed restaurant diners to pay at restaurants and leave a tip using their smartphones, and was developed and implemented in Kiev, Ukraine. Settle’s founders, Stats Matviyenko and Anna Polishchuk, later added a pre-ordering service to the app, and in 2015 launched it as Allset in San Francisco and Palo Alto.

In 2016, Allset launched a Facebook Messenger chatbot that searches for nearby restaurants, curates meal suggestions and can book a table, order and pay for meals. In 2017, the company successfully raised $5 million in series A funding, and as of 2019, it operates in 11 different US cities, including New York, Los Angeles and Miami.

One of the biggest challenges for companies looking to launch a mobile payments solution for restaurants has been getting enough restaurants on board to develop a compelling proposition. The adoption challenge is a widespread issue with mobile payment solutions in general, which is why it is often easier for brands to develop a proprietary app with their own native ordering and payment solution than to support third-party technology.

True Food Kitchen is one restaurant that has gone down this route, partnering with customer engagement and loyalty platform Thanx to produce an app, True Insider, that integrates with the restaurant’s digital ordering platform and allows diners to make reservations, order and pay online, and earn rewards. These rewards are available in tiers, from bronze to gold, and are based on annual spending. Perks for customers who spend through the app include discounted purchases, free dessert, preview menu tastings and priority seating.

The lunch hour

Much like eating out, the experience of ordering lunch during the workday has plenty that can be improved on – the recurring dilemma about where to eat, the time taken to order, wait for and pick up food, and if ordering with a group of colleagues, the debate about who orders and who collects food for the group.

Numerous delivery companies, from Deliveroo to UberEats to DoorDash, can be said to cater to this niche, simplifying things with easy ordering and faster delivery. However, there are two apps which have done even more than this to innovate on the lunchtime experience.

One is MealPal, a monthly lunch subscription app that launched in New York in 2016, and now operates in 17 cities worldwide, including London, Singapore, Paris and Sydney. The premise of the service is that customers pay a monthly subscription for a set number of meals provided by local restaurants in their area. Each meal is available at a cheaper price than a customer would normally pay to eat at that restaurant, and is chosen from a selection between 5pm the previous day and 10am. The customer then goes to collect the meal at the restaurant in a specified time window, displaying their order number to collect the order.

The service manages to solve the persistent problem of where to go for lunch, as well as making the process varied, simple and good value. While MealPal is by no means the only company offering a lunch subscription service, it has been highly successful in doing so, and its experience tends to give it the edge in every new market it launches in.

While MealPal has been reinventing the solo lunch experience, another app called Ritual has been reinventing the group lunch. Ritual is an ordering app that integrates social features into the ordering experience, allowing co-workers to “piggyback” on each other’s orders.

One person will place an order via the app, which will trigger a notification that their colleagues can use to join them if they want to order from the same place but can’t go out to pick up their food. The app will also notify users when a colleague is back with their order, and allows them to easily volunteer for pick-up, or flag the group if they aren’t in a position to pick up food.

As TechCrunch’s Matthew Lynley wrote of the service, “The whole process aims at emulating that experience of figuring out where you want to eat in a Slack channel or arguing over a Seamless order”. Ritual also offers rewards in the form of discounts and free meals at local restaurants.

Parking

“Parking is a perfect case study for technological disruption and changing consumer behaviour,” Ben Davis wrote in his profile of PayByPhone, a parking app that is changing the experience of paying for parking. “In only a few decades we’ve gone from a wound spring in a meter next to every parking spot, to a tap on your smartphone (and very soon, perhaps, your car dashboard).”

PayByPhone has set out to make every part of the experience of parking, and paying for parking, quicker and easier. First and foremost, it has taken cash out of the equation by allowing drivers to pay for parking through its smartphone or smart watch app. This gets rid of the need to search for change – and a parking meter.

App users also receive notifications when their parking session is coming to an end, and can extend it with a single tap – putting an end to the need to remember when a parking session will expire, as well as steep extra charges for exceeding the time limit.

paybyphone apple watch

Don’t remember when you parked? Not to worry – the app has that covered too, with a map feature and a ‘nearby’ feature that will estimate where the user has parked, helping them find their way back to their vehicle.

For more on how PayByPhone is revolutionising the parking experience and what the future could hold for parking, read the full interview with UK CEO Jonny Combe.

Food & drink ordering

Ordering food and drink, for all that the rewards are usually worthwhile, can be a tedious process. Fortunately, food and drink brands are beginning to take it upon themselves to develop mobile experiences that innovate on this, with faster ordering, instant payment, and loyalty rewards.

Starbucks has received a good deal of attention from industry commentators as a pioneer in the mobile payments space with its Order and Pay app. The US coffee chain has developed a compelling use case around using a smartphone to order coffee, making the experience fun, quick and accessible as well as worthwhile for its customers, who can earn rewards from the Starbucks Rewards loyalty scheme by paying for their purchases though the Starbucks app.

In 2018, it was revealed that Starbucks had the most widely-used mobile payments solution by number of users, ahead of tech giants like Apple and Google, with its popularity forecast to continue into 2022. As Patricio Robles pointed out in his analysis for Econsultancy, the app had a ready-made user base with Starbucks’ millions of customers, many of whom buy from the retailer daily, giving them plenty of cause to download and use the app. However, the app also doesn’t make the assumption that the user is a regular customer, providing a helpful map to the nearest Starbucks branch.

Ben Davis also noted in his initial impressions of the app that it would be a particular time-saver for employees making a coffee run for multiple colleagues – which is likely to be a frequent use case in urban locations in particular.

Another food and drink brand allowing its customers to save time and beat the queue with a mobile app is McDonald’s. Similar to Starbucks, the McDonald’s mobile app enables customers to place their order ahead of time and collect it on arrival at a local restaurant – though unlike Starbucks, staff won’t start preparing a customer’s order until they arrive at the branch (once an order is placed, the Starbucks app displays the estimated time until the order will be ready). Customers scan a QR code once they arrive to signal to staff that they should begin preparing the order.

The McDonald’s app doesn’t drastically reinvent the ordering process, but it does give customers additional time to explore menu options and place their order (which again, is invaluable for a large group) and allows customers to skip the queue upon arrival at their local restaurant. Customers can also access exclusive discounts through the mobile app, giving them additional incentive to make repeat orders and choose McDonald’s over other fast food brands.

Buying petrol & gas

Buying fuel for your car is another regular purchase where brands have the opportunity to capture some loyalty if they can create a better experience for the user on mobile. Fuel companies including Exxon Mobil and Shell have been doing just that, launching dedicated apps where the user can pay for their gas or petrol through the app and save time and money while earning rewards.

Using the Exxon Mobil Speedpass+ app, drivers can link their preferred payment card to the app and use it to buy fuel at any Exxon Mobil station. They can pay from the driver’s seat using their smartphone, smart watch or even their car if they drive a SYNC-3 enabled Ford vehicle. The app can also be used to find a nearby station, as well as pay for add-on purchases like a car wash.

Shell’s app offers similar benefits, allowing drivers to buy cheaper fuel at Shell petrol and gas stations and pay from within the app. The app will give drivers a three-digit code that they can enter into the pump to reduce the price of their fuel. It also provides a QR code that they can use to pay for fuel and other purchases at the convenience store.

Conclusion

Innovative mobile payment solutions are still the exception rather than the rule, but are becoming less and less so, as brands realise their potential for improving the customer experience and building loyalty, and startups sense the opportunity to revolutionise the way we approach everyday tasks.

With smartphones already a constant fixture in our lives – along with other smart technology like smart watches and smart cars – we can expect to see more of these new services springing up, being adopted, and changing our user experience offline as well as online.