POSITIVE MOVES

The point of sale is the pressure point of the supermarket. At the same time as retailers load it up with new customer payment options, marketing messages and data-gathering devices, they also want accurate, quick customer throughput -- all using technology that's simple enough for even a minimally experienced cashier to operate.It's no wonder that retailers are seeking ways to combine and simplify

The point of sale is the pressure point of the supermarket. At the same time as retailers load it up with new customer payment options, marketing messages and data-gathering devices, they also want accurate, quick customer throughput -- all using technology that's simple enough for even a minimally experienced cashier to operate.

It's no wonder that retailers are seeking ways to combine and simplify POS functions, by more closely integrating payment solutions and using wireless technology. Retailers are also deploying interactive training tools at the checkout, providing more informed, and in some cases more productive, cashiers.

The ultimate streamlining of the front end may eliminate it altogether -- at least in the form it's currently known. More widespread use of self-scanning technology, possibly combined with home-based shopping and prepayment, would radically diminish the need for cashiers and traditional POS units.

Some industry experts even envision technology that would eliminate the need for anyone, customer or cashier, to scan individual items. The customer's entire order would be "read," and the order totaled, merely by passing the products through a device sensitized to pick up the appropriate product information, perhaps from tags placed on the product.

The move to streamline and improve the front end is fueled by the importance of the checkout process to the customer's overall shopping experience. One solution retailers are already implementing to improve that experience is the integration of electronic payment options.

"If you think about the time it takes a customer to reach the checkout lane, get the transaction processed, and pay for their transaction when using cash, the payment process encompasses approximately 40% of the transaction time," said Richard Sarkissian, partner for consumer business practices at Deloitte & Touche Consulting Group, New York.

"First, we need less cash going through the front end, and more of a progression toward card transactions -- whether it is credit, debit or automated teller machine cards," Dick Silvers, marketing specialist for Richmont Marketing Specialists, Irving, Texas, told SN. Silvers was chief information officer for H.E. Butt Grocery Co., San Antonio, as well as a former CIO for Tandy Corp., Fort Worth, Texas.

"The ideal situation may be to have customers identify themselves with their frequent-shopper card, and alert the checker to their payment tender," said Terry Morgan, senior practitioner for Deloitte & Touche. "In the future, customers may sign an electronic pad or sheet, then just bag their groceries and head to their car," he added.

Experts also predict that a focus on employee training and intuitive systems will improve the checkout process.

"I would like to see more on-screen help for the cashier; a system that requires little training and an interface that allows for a more automated transaction and faster checkout," Silvers said. "With more help screens that give quick answers to inquiries, we can have a more informed associate meeting the customer. These systems are coming along, though they are not quite good enough yet."

Intuitive, user-friendly POS systems will be a necessity for the new "dream machine" front end of the next century, especially if retailers continue to experience traditionally high rates of cashier turnover.

"There will be continued growth in multimedia graphics, which will help in training," said a source familiar with POS technology. "I think the industry will also start leaping into intuitive touch screens at the register monitors, enabling the cashier to customize the checkout process to what the associate is comfortable with.

"This will replace the traditional keyboard and monitor," he added. "There is a lot to be gained in this area."

Another area retailers may look into in the new century is communicating with cashiers, customers or both in their native tongues. "POS units may start to be altered according to language inclinations," the source said. "This can help the associate understand the transaction, as well as communicate with different customers."

Integrated solutions such as electronic payment systems and intuitive registers will mature as open platform architecture becomes commonplace in the industry. Open systems are also offering a basis for plug-and-play options, including the development of robust applications using standards that are part of Microsoft's ActiveStore and/or Sun Microsystems' JavaPOS initiatives.

Questions still remain about the direction of these standards and exactly how open systems can become. "Standards are constantly evolving," said Ken Fobes, president of the consulting firm IT Strategies, Ponte Verde, Fla.

He warned that "while plug-and-play allows retailers to use best-of-breed solutions, the customer doesn't care -- they just want to be checked out efficiently."

Deloitte's Morgan believes the plug-and-play concept could be a competitive advantage, as the computer-literate generation becomes a larger segment of the work force. "It all comes down to retailers looking forward and making their systems easier to use," he said. "It is a younger generation applying for the jobs, and they are familiar with these tools."

One area that may be sparked by the development of plug-and-play opportunities is wireless technology, which uses radio frequency to generate power and provide data to registers positioned any place in the store where additional checkout service is required.

"Wireless gives retailers the opportunity to open registers in areas or departments as business dictates, and it increases selling space that a traditional POS may occupy," said Morgan. "These units have not yet grown and developed to a point I would like to see, but the potential is there."

As these solutions continue to develop, visionaries are predicting that eventually retailers may consider removing the biggest front-end barrier -- the front end itself. Supermarkets, mass merchants and club stores are already experimenting with different self-checkout technologies.

Retailers from different classes of trade, including Wal-Mart Stores, Bentonville, Ark.; Barnes & Noble, New York; various supermarkets and some apparel companies, are deploying different versions of home shopping. These could be the first steps needed to achieve a "POS-less" store.

In the case of home shopping, consumers would pay for groceries on-line, then enter the store, pick up or bring a personal handheld checkout device, select groceries, and scan each choice with the unit. Upon completing item selection, the unit would be returned to its cradle, a ticket or receipt would be printed, and the customer would be directed to the store exit.

"Retailers need to look at less traditional means of not necessarily eliminating the front end, but at least eliminating lines to get customers out the doors faster," he added.

Some believe self-scanning and self-checkout are only a starting point to siphoning customers from the traditional front end. "There could be a tube that the order is placed in that scans the customer basket instantly," Silvers explained. "When the basket exits the tunnel, the order is totalled."

According to Fobes, retailers must keep customer needs in mind. "The customers should be able to shop their way," he said. "If they enjoy strolling through the store, and then meeting their favorite cashier, then for them, shopping should remain a social experience. But for the customer who wants to come in and get out fast, there need to be alternatives to address that."