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Innovation at check-out

checkoutline"I hate waiting in checkout lines" has its own Facebook page. So does "I Hate Self Checkout!!!" Are your customers stuck in those negative vibes?

They don't have to be. Experienced retailers know that most of the emotion around queuing has more to do with perception than the clock. In many cases, the quickest fix is simply to open another cash register or two during peaks. Having enough staff to do so isn't so simple, of course; Kroger has been a US leader in analytic approaches to tuning the number of cashiers to store traffic.

Technical fixes

Apart from these organizational approaches, plenty of technical innovations are competing to disrupt traditional check-out lines. Last week's installment of "The Payoff" profiled Qthru and its smartphone application that allows shoppers to scan and total their own purchases while moving through the aisles. As the article above explains, Kroger's experiments include several new techniques for self check-out, both at the front of the store and in the aisles.

Yet another variation, mostly for retailers selling bigger-ticket items, is mobile point-of-sale (POS). M-POS has been spectacular for Apple, in the sense that its retail stores are very successful and customers regularly laud Apple's M-POS implementation. After apparent hesitation and adjustment in its roll-out, even such a mass-market merchandiser as Home Depot appears to be finding success with M-POS.

On the other coast from Seattle-centered Qthru, Boston-based Modiv Media gives much of the same experience with the customer's choice: either a mobile app, or hand-held in-store scanners accessible to customers. Where Qthru began with technology and customer experience, Modiv Media's background is in branding and m-commerce.

Concurrently with all these other trials, near-field communications (NFC) is growing explosively. An annual growth rate in excess of 40% has analysts at Berg Insight foreseeing, for instance, that by 2017 86% of POS terminals will be NFC-equipped. A highlight of NFC's trajectory in the near term is whether Apple comes out this year (possibly within the next couple of weeks) with an NFC-capable iPhone 5.

Even farther afield, RFID has the potential to alter checkout almost beyond recognition, and Toshiba is among the organizations to claim its artificial intelligence is nearly ready to scan and identify untagged--no UPC, no RFID--merchandise swiftly and reliably.

Bring it back to strategic plans

Whatever choices you pursue among these technologies, start with clarity about your own organization's goals. Not all customers have to like a particular POS alternative for it to succeed; on the other side, there are plenty of reasons that even a well-received pilot program might not be right to roll-out across all stores. What's exciting now is that there appear to be abundant technical selections to support a range of different strategies for managing customer relations.

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