Retail's struggles with improving in-store checkout

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With all of the effort by retailers to lure shoppers into their stores, one would think that granting those customers an easy and painless exit would be a priority. One would be wrong.

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With all of the effort by retailers to lure shoppers into their stores, one would think that granting those customers an easy and painless exit would be a priority. One would be wrong.

A few years ago, Walmart made an impressively clever attempt, leveraging mobile in-store. That experiment, which never got beyond the experimental stage, had shoppers scanning every item as they placed it in their cart. Then when it came time to check out, they would use the self-checkout lane. But instead of rescanning every item, they would display a single barcode from the Walmart trial mobile app that would quickly tell the POS every item being purchased.

The Walmart system, not unlike every self-checkout approach, would need various anti-theft measures, including periodic spot checks. But it masterfully dealt with the problem of quickly processing a cart with perhaps 50 SKUs in it.

Today, some chains — including a few Whole Foods stores in Manhattan — are trying out checkout systems that direct shoppers to different checkout lanes. Unfortunately, most of these systems know little more than the number of shoppers in line. They can't factor in the number of items in each cart, nor the nature of those items. Some items — such as produce that has to be weighed or age-restricted items such as cigarettes or alcohol — simply take a lot longer to process than others.

Much more sophisticated lane-selectors, which could factor such information into the lane-choosing decision, could happen with item-level RFID. In theory, that could tell systems what is in the carts of people already in line at a specific lane as well as shoppers waiting to be assigned a lane.  

This brings us back to that Walmart mobile effort. Given that item-level RFID simply isn't going to happen for most retail items — and certainly not in grocery — the answer has to be some version of mobile checkout. The great part about that Walmart effort was that it used mobile for what it's good at (scanning barcodes and even getting customers to do the scanning) while turning over the heavy lifting (the tenderization) to an existing system already designed to do that: self-checkout systems.

In terms of lane assignment, it also made that easy by shoving those shoppers into self-checkout. But if it wanted to, it could easily expand to all checkout lanes. Therein lies the bonus: Every customer would represent one barcode. With the exception of age-verification and price-by-weight items, customers with 90 items in their carts could be processed as quickly as someone with two items in their carts. To the system, it would all be a single mobile-displayed barcode. The individual item scans would have been borne by the customer during the shopping trip.

This is worth focusing on because the checkout is overwhelmingly the least favorite part of a shopping trip. Indeed, lengthy, slow-moving checkout lanes are a key reason why in-store purchases periodically morph into Amazon shipments. The closer physical stores get to solving the checkout problem, the closer those stores will be to fighting showrooming.

When brick-and-mortars lose shoppers to someone else's e-commerce operation, they are quick to blame the e-commerce. Truth be told, most such happenings are much more the case of a store losing the sale rather than the site winning one.

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