The Future of Retail Checkout

We’ve recently reported on a number of technological innovations which have changed the way consumers shop, including interactive “shoppable windows” which bridge the gap between online shopping and bricks-and-mortar retail, and new shopping technologies which integrate the shopping experience into the consumer’s lifestyle, allowing customers to scan a quick-response code directly from a television screen and purchase an item seen on a television show or commercial. The latest development in this realm is a new trend in shopping technology that seeks to transform the way consumers pay for items in traditional brick-and-mortar stores.

Many of the significant changes in retail check-out have focused on having the consumer do more of the work. Gone are the days of a general store clerk retrieving items requested by a customer, packaging them and accepting payment from the customer. For the better part of a century, the grocery-store model has been the norm – modern shoppers gather items themselves from customer-accessible shelves and take them to a centralized check-out clerk. Many grocery stores and drug stores have built upon that model by implementing self-check-out technology. Some grocery chains even use “intelligent” carts which can tally a customer’s total as items are added to the cart and even track movement and offer promotions as a customer approaches an item.

The next transformation in retail check-out is coming in the form of a network of sensors placed inside stores which will allow retailers to recognize customers via their smartphones or other devices when they walk through the door and have their preferred payment information at the ready. With inexpensive sensors affixed to the store’s merchandise, customers will have the ability to walk away with their selected merchandise and be billed automatically, completely sidestepping the traditional check-out process.

This type of technology will seem somewhat familiar to Apple shoppers, who for the past couple of years have been able to scan barcodes on items in Apple stores and pay for them using the “EasyPay” feature on the Apple Store app, avoiding the in-person check-out model altogether. Similarly, some restaurants, including Chili’s, Applebee’s and Buffalo Wild Wings, are already using tablets to transform the check-out experience. Diners can browse menus, place orders and check themselves out all using a table-mounted device, without ever interacting with a server.

While these futuristic check-out models have the potential to transform the check-out process and bring added convenience to the traditional retail experience, they also could cause privacy concerns. Retailers will need to gain the trust of consumers who may not be used to having their personal information exchanged across networks in real-time. Retail strategists have recommended that retailers avoid a “stalker” mentality and instead adopt a “butler” mentality. A stalker is perceived as surreptitiously trying to get as much information about you as possible, while a butler waits subtly in the wings looking for opportunities to make your life easier. If retailers are successful in adopting the “butler” mentality, the traditional check-out process could go the way of the old-fashioned general store clerk.

Related topics: Privacy, Retail