For supermarket operators, the checkout remains the technological linchpin of the store, the very heartbeat of retail activity. As such, retailers are loath to tamper with it too much. But that may be about to change.
Much of the buzz at the National Retail Federation's 100th Annual Convention & Expo this month in New York had to do with some new POS technologies. Perhaps the most notable example was a self-checkout “tunnel” system developed by the Kroger Co. that was on display at the Fujitsu America booth. (See the story, “Kroger Tests New Checkout Technology,” here.)
The big advantage of this system, which Kroger has been testing for the past several months at a store in Hebron, Ky., is speed. Shoppers place products on a belt that moves through the tunnel at 80 feet per minute, compared to 30 feet per minute for a conventional checkout. Inside the tunnel, a dozen cameras read bar codes from any direction, with an identification rate of 98% or more.
Of course, along with speed must come accuracy, and even at 98%, this system falls short. But Kroger, which is in discussions with Fujitsu to commercialize the technology, is still developing it. Moreover, I know of other technology companies working on a variant of this system that would address the accuracy issue; they requested anonymity for the moment, though I expect them to go public in May.
Another drawback to Kroger's system and all conventional checkout systems is the need to remove products from the cart, scan and bag them, and return them to the cart. But this labor is circumvented by scan-and-bag systems like Stop & Shop's Scan It! handheld scanner, which I habitually use at my store in Danbury, Conn. I scan and bag everything as I shop so that when I arrive at the checkout, I only have to pay (in a conventional manner).
The Scan It! device, I believe, is the precursor to a mobile scan-and-pay process that will really put shoppers in the driver's seat. Smartphones are not yet equipped with the scanning capability of Scan It!, but they are not very far away. And mobile payment, already in place abroad, is catching on in the U.S.
Just last week, Starbucks announced that customers at the 6,800 stores it operates in the U.S. and the 1,000 that are in Target stores will be able to pay with their cell phones. They just need to download the free Starbucks card app, which creates a bar code that is scanned (with a digital imager) at Starbucks checkouts, deducting funds from a Starbucks account
Another service, AisleBuyer, offers an app that allows shoppers to scan bar codes on products and pay by inputting credit card information. And soon U.S. smartphones will include NFC (near field communication, a form of RFID), enabling them to communicate with contactless readers.
It's hard to predict which direction POS technology is going to take, but between advanced self-checkout and mobile scan-and-pay, it appears that change is coming.