Business Brains

Time for retailers to check out self-checkout technology

Posting in Design

IBM introduce a new module design for its retail self-checkout system, underscoring a shift in the way retail transactions are enabled and managed.

Being that I live in New Jersey and they won't even let us pump our own gas in this state, I'm not all that surprised that I am hard-pressed to think of a store in my neighborhood that lets me check out and pay for things without a cashier. But I know that my brother's grocery store in San Jose, Calif., makes use of it liberally, although all the confusion about how you stand in line for them seems to negate the time-saving benefits. (I kid you not, there was such massive confusion because of the front-end design flow that is sort of defeated the purpose.)

Anyway, self-checkout is becoming a bigger topic of conversation in the retail set, as evidenced by many of the products I've seen over the past three months that enable either customers or clerks to complete transactions without having to queue up beside a specific cash register. You can read about two examples that I've discovered that both have to do with small businesses: "Small retailer enables self checkout with iPhone app" and "New York retailer lets customers surf inventory via Apple iPad."

It also was a big topic of conversation at the National Retail Federation trade show in New York, where IBM introduced a modular self checkout system (pictured right) that is supposed to rethink how the self checkout process is designed.

IBM Self Checkout System 6 was built with flexibility in mind, according to its maker. Retailers can set up the system that accommodates scanning and paying in one place OR they can set them up so there are specific pay "stations" OR they can even accommodate mobile shoppers that have an enabled mobile phone or "personal shopper device."

Here are some of the other features that IBM touts:

  • The shortest scan to bag ration (which means shoppers don't have to strain their backs). It also means that the process might be quicker
  • The ability to accept cash, and do the tracking and reporting that goes along with that
  • Most of the process happens "above the counter" so there isn't a lot of bending involved

The technology won't be available until late May, but I think it represents a trend that will continue becoming more popular among retailers.

My main quibble with self checkout approaches like this one is that, frankly, I think some people are intimidated by using this sort of technology. I know my mother-in-law would avoid this completely, even if the line for the cashier was way longer.

When I was in California shopping with my brother last summer not only was it difficult to scan the items, but the payment process was unclear. To be fair, there was one (one!) clerk running around the islands trying to give pointers, sort of like what you see in airline check-in kiosk areas. But the process still seems too rooted in the big systems design mentality of the past. Even I was confused, and I think about technology for a living.

My gut tells me that some of the simply mobile payment schemes now under development that use Android and iPhone devices will need to catch on first before self-checkout works in the bigger stores. (Think Intuit GoPayment or Square.) I actually think this is an area in which smaller retailers may have an advantage, because they have less of an investment in retail technology to start.

Related stories:

Share this

Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure