Retail Catches Up to IT

Despite remarkable advances in technology, the process of buying items in a store?anything from clothes and medicine to computer components?hasn?t changed significantly over the last century. In most cases, you pick up the goods you want, head to a cash register or point of sale (POS) terminal and hand over cash or a credit card. You walk out with purchases in hand.

This may soon change. Apple?which has already eliminated POS terminals in its stores and provides e-receipts?rolled out its EasyPay service on November 8. It allows customers to scan the barcode for an item using an iPhone 4 or iPhone 4s, view ratings and reviews and then pay using a credit card registered to an iTunes account. In addition, the app shows availability of products at various Apple stores and provides a consolidated view of current and past orders. It also displays tracking data for shipped orders.

Meanwhile, grocery chain Kroger has tested a new technology called Advantage Checkout that uses a scan tunnel similar to what airlines and airports use to scan luggage tags facing every direction (it is manufactured by Fujitsu). The system relies on a battery of image scanners as well as optical character recognition (OCR) to identify products and scan them in large volumes. A pilot in Hebron, Kentucky that began in 2010 has achieved a 98.5 percent accuracy rate.

Radio frequency identification tags (RFID) are beginning to enter the retail picture too. Zebra Technologies has developed an RFID-enabled checkout station that can be used for cafeterias, airports and other locations that could benefit from fast service and self-checkout. Dubbed Fast Track Shopping, it is already used by Sterling Services, a Detroit-area convenience shopping chain with outlets in offices, hotels, schools, medical facilities, fitness centers and retirement communities. A customer simply carries tagged items to a POS terminal, which detects the total amount due and prompts for a credit card, cash or thumbprint. The entire process typically takes less than 10 seconds.

Over the next decade, the retail experience is likely to change significantly as automation technology and more advanced inventory and customer facing systems take hold. A report from PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts that by 2015 ?technology will be pervasive? and ?digital and personal media will continue to grow exponentially and create new channels for customer insight, interaction and engagement.?