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Are self-checkouts paving the way for a new commerce experience?

By Mickey Ristroph

Whether you are involved in the tech industry or not, you have likely heard about the incredible potential of mobile payments and their growing opportunity to completely disrupt our commerce experience. The talk has been abundant, but the reality less so – most people do not know what has been done to advance mobile payments.

That is because we tend to get excited about and take notice of revolutionary change – the kind of change that seems to happen overnight. Evolutionary change, which is much more common, tends to happen gradually and gives consumers the opportunity they need to both accept and adopt technology.

Mobile payments, particularly in the retail setting, are a great example of an industry that is experiencing change in a slow, gradual way. Just take a look at the progress we have seen in self-checkout.

Check this out Remember 15 years ago when grocery stores began offering shoppers the ability to manage their own checkout through self-service kiosks? Yes, it has been that long: case in point. At the time, that ability seemed revolutionary, but now it is fairly commonplace in grocery store and retail chains throughout the country.

To put some numbers behind that, the Food Marketing Institute noted that only 6 percent of U.S. supermarkets offered self-checkout lanes in 1999. By 2007, that number jumped to nearly 95 percent.

Since their introduction years ago, self-checkouts continue to improve, and have expanded far beyond the grocery setting. We see them in large retailers like Target and Home Depot, and we see them in restaurants thanks to self-service POS systems such as Clover and Tabbedout – two companies that are finding innovative ways to improve the purchase experience.

It is a great start, but eventually we are hoping that mobile payments can make self-checkout so efficient customers can just walk through a store, scan items as they are placed in the shopping cart, and walk out of the store, with no interruption to the shopping experience.

Apple’s payment system, which provides the ability to scan your purchase on your phone and walk out, is a great precursor to this, and is helping shoppers grow more comfortable with using this modern payment system.

Though Apple tends to be ahead of its time, it is not alone. Already we are seeing the first inklings of this trend emerge in other industries as regional stores such as ShopRite begin pilot testing their mobile scanning app – an in-aisle scanning system that allows shoppers to scan products and pay with their mobile phones.

But mass acceptance of scan-and-shop apps by customers and retailers is still a year or two in the future.

What will this do for the customer experience? This is where the revolutionary change comes in.

Transitioning from employee-assisted checkout to self-checkout kiosks to an entirely mobile checkout system will turn the average customer’s shopping experience upside down.

For most retailers, the primary focus is and should be on the customer, and self-service is all about improving the customer’s purchase experience.

No longer will customers be required to stand in long checkout lines, or experience less than ideal service.

Plus, removing the demand for employees at checkout gives them more time to focus on helping customers within the store.

Self-service through mobile payments provides lower friction and higher value for the customer, which in turn, translates to enormous profit for the store.

How can we aid customer acceptance? It is important that retailers do their best to have a user-focused mobile experience that anticipates customers’ needs. But before retailers can even begin to think about incorporating mobile self-service in their locations they need to make sure that mobile is already an accepted aspect of the store’s experience.

Start by offering customers coupons and special offers through a store specific app. That will encourage them to associate mobile with the store. It is also a good idea to wave goodbye to that clunky old cash register, and welcome an iPad or mobile POS-based payment system.

Once customers have accepted that mobile is a part of their shopping experience, it will make the transition to a mobile self-checkout much easier.

To guarantee the successful launch of this new mobile-focused program, invest in training, both for customers and employees.

Nothing is worse than introducing a system that no one understands how to use, and in the early stages of mobile implementation you will have many confused customers. Do not worsen the situation with an equally confused staff.

Ensure that all in-store employees have been given enough knowledge to feel comfortable using the app and helping customers troubleshoot.

It is also worth considering how you will help customers become comfortable with your mobile experience.

Whether it is through ambassadors that train shoppers in-store or videos and other at-home learning tools, any successful mobile implementation will ensure that customers feel educated and confident in-store, not left behind.

CHANGE IS coming.

Customers are ready for an improved shopping experience, and mobile self- checkout is a great way to provide that.

Those stores that jump on board first and do it well will be applauded as innovators – think Apple – and those that hesitate to embrace change are destined to be left in the dust. The question is, which group do you want to fall into?

Mickey Ristroph is cofounder and co-CEO of Mutual Mobile, Austin, TX. Reach him at [email protected].