Using RFID to Zoom Through Checkout in 30 Seconds or Less

By Mel Duvall Print this article Print

Are RFID's proponents dreaming? Maybe not. But what's technically feasible may not make economic sense.

Wal-Mart Chief Information Officer Rollin Ford envisions a time when shoppers will be able to approach a checkout line and tally up and pay for their purchases in 30 seconds or less by using radio frequency identification (RFID) technology.

But four years after Wal-Mart unveiled its wide-ranging plans for RFID, are we any closer to making that vision a reality?

The short answer is no, say those involved in the development of point of sale terminals that would make such speedy checkouts possible. Yes, it is technically feasible to implement RFID tags, readers and point of sale (POS) terminals throughout a retail operation as large as a Wal-Mart Supercenter or Sam's Club. But for now it remains impractical.

"It certainly is plausible—we've demonstrated it in the lab," says Brad Tracy, vice president of marketing for retail at NCR, which manufacturers a wide range of POS terminals. "But a number of issues would have to be addressed first. It takes a tremendous amount of collaboration between retailers and vendors alike."

In fact, it has been more than two years since NCR unveiled a hybrid POS terminal, which was thought to pave the way for adoption of the technology. The terminals, which could read information from both RFID-tagged merchandise as well as traditional bar codes, were being tested in a so-called Future Store operated by German retailer Metro Group.

Terry Massey, vice president with NCR's automated identification and data capture (AIDC) unit, acknowledges that there was a lot of hype around RFID and what it could do for retailers two years ago. Now, the company is trying to temper expectations around what it sees realistically coming to market in the next five years.

That isn't to say there won't be a lot of changes and innovations. Progress is being made on a number of other fronts, including using RFID payment systems (such as credit cards with an embedded-RFID chip), as well as using technologies like Bluetooth to pay for merchandise by cell phone. Tracey points to the advent of more smart POS terminals, which can provide consumers with a wide range of information such as warranty details, delivery schedules, and other production options, as a sign of what's to come in the more immediate future.

"There are a lot of exciting things happing at the till, but in terms of RFID getting you through there in seconds, we're trying to be realistic," says Tracy.

Write to reporter Mel Duvall

Related story: Wal-Mart's Faltering RFID Initiative

This article was originally published on 2007-10-04
Contributing Editor
Mel Duvall is a veteran business and technology journalist, having written for a variety of daily newspapers and magazines for 17 years. Most recently he was the Business Commerce Editor for Interactive Week, and previously served as a senior business writer for The Financial Post.

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