2015.02 | RFID self-checkout

IMG_8720For many years, retailers have heard about the benefits of RFID, and there has been little to no use of item level RFID to check out in a store.  On the weekend, I visited my local library with my family and had an opportunity to utilize the newly installed self-checkouts to check out our books.

Under the old system, all items had a unique barcode and an EAS security tag.  To check out an item, customers presented their books and library card to an attendant at a PC with a scanner.  The attendant scanned the library card to validate the customer’s identification, checked if there were any fines, holds etc, and then scanned all of the items to be checked out.  A receipt was printed and the
Photo 2015-02-09, 7 16 14 PM items were walked around a security gate at the combined entrance/exit, and handed to the library customer.  The security tags set off an alarm when they are near the gates, so the attendant passed them to the holder on the other side of the security gate.

Under the new system, there is no need for customers to interact with an attendant unless they have a fine, a hold, or some other intervention that goes beyond the simple checking out of an item.  The customer uses one of a few self-checkout terminals – which include PC and a scanner, but also a customer facing touchscreen, and an antenna in a pad on the counter.  The Photo 2015-02-09, 7 16 06 PMcustomer scans their library card, and if they have no fines or holds, they can then identify the items to check out.  To identify the items for borrowing, the customer places the items on the pad on the counter, with as many as three at a time piled on top of each other in a stack.  The antenna reads the tags in the books and shows them on the screen for verification.  The customer can validate that the items match, ensure any media inside the item matches the case, and complete the checkout with or without a receipt.

As the items are now considered checked out, the customer can walk past a gate with an RFID reader, and if the item they are carrying is checked out, no alarm will sound.  If an item has not been checked out and allocated to the customer’s card, an alarm will sound.

On the whole, the system worked very smoothly. While only recently installed, customers took to it and had little issue using it.  The library staff were helpful and encouraging for the few customers who did require assistance.

The RFID system was a good fit in the library for a number of reasons:

  • Even if RFID tags are more expensive than barcode labels and EAS tags, items are tagged once and then run through the system many times as they are loaned through their useful life, instead of being purchased once.
  • Most items in a library are flat and lend themselves to easy scanning on a pad like this.  There are rarely very heavy, bulky or oddly shaped items to be checked out.
  • Consumers are accustomed to self service from using it at ATMs, airports and retail self-checkouts so they recognize the paradigm of self service took to it well.
  • All customers are identified with an identity card.  No exceptions.
  • One attendant can now support many customers at a time instead of one, reducing wait times, and ideally enhancing the customer experience. If customers don’t wish to check out their own items, they can assist them easily.
  • Allowing customers to walk out the door with their own items without passing them around a security gate appears to provide better flow and a smoother checkout experience.  It also removes an underlying assumption of distrust implied by the gates and security system as previously configured.

The whole system reminded me of a question I had from a retailer at NRF who asked to see our RFID self-checkouts.  While I would personally like to see RFID checkouts in retail purely from a love of technology, it seems unlikely at present.  There are some differences between this library scenario and many retail environments from a checkout perspective:

  • It will be difficult to convince all the parties involved in manufacturing goods to move to item level RFID tags unless the retailer and consumer are willing to absorb the price.  The prices are getting lower and lower for the sort of passive tags needed for items purchased at retail.  Time will tell if it will be enough!  The big retailers will have to drive this adoption.
  • Implementing readers to read these tags instead of barcodes would require a replacement or at least an upgrade to current reader infrastructure.  An ROI is needed to change/add that infrastructure to include RFID readers.
  • While libraries have basic flat items, other retail environments have all sorts of uniquely sized and shaped items that may not lend themselves well to a standardized rfid reader environment.  For unusual items, a handheld RFID reader could be used, but if it was, what’s the difference between holding that RFID reader to a tag and scanning a barcode as is done today?  Not much.
  • Would there be a throughput advantage?  For smaller transactions, it is very unlikely.  Cashiers and even customers scanning themselves can scan a few items relatively quickly.  For smaller transactions, tendering is generally the longest part of the transaction and not the scanning.  For larger transactions, there may be some throughput advantage, but it would take time for retailers and consumers to develop the trust that the system would capture all of the items accurately.  Also, many customers like to validate their purchases and their prices as they are scanned.  Much of the throughput advantage of an instantaneous cart total could be lost by questions and validation afterward.
  • Weighable items would need to be either pre-packaged or separated for checkout.  Weighables couldn’t just be left in the cart for reading.
  • Unlike a library, the items that a consumer buys can’t be “checked out” as they are not unique in the store.  An antenna at the front of the store placed for security can’t identify items as valid to pass or not.  It’s unclear how security would work with RFID tags.  I’ve heard of more sophisticated and more costly RFID tags that can be de-activated on scan, but then what if a client changes their mind after the transaction or returns an item?  Does it need to be retagged?  How does one “print” a new tag for an item?  If RFID can’t be used for security, then EAS would be needed as well.
  • What about bulk items that are tagged with paper tags today?  What about low value and small items like greeting cards?

As with all solutions in a retail environment, there must be a benefit for both the consumer and the retailer for a solution to be implemented successfully.  It’s possible that the RFID self-checkout could get to that point if retailers can leverage the operational benefits on the back end first and push it to the front end.  Then it will take customers and retailers getting comfortable with wheeling a big basket of groceries up to a reader and taking that price as correct.

A lot of stars have to align for an RFID self-checkout to come our way, and if they do it will probably take some time.  Maybe next NRF.

2012.28 | eReceipts Redux

A number of retailers with some foresight now offer e-receipts or  transactions without receipts.  I am encountering more and more requests from retailers to enable this capability at the point of sale, and that is the direction we should be going as a retail industry.

As a consumer, the option for electronic receipts is not moving fast enough for my taste and I’m certainly not alone.  The amount of paper that any of us receive or are offered at every transaction on any given day is out of control.  Paper receipts made sense when there was no other mechanism available for validating a sale – that is no longer the case.  We don’t need a receipt for a donut – or anything else for that matter – all of it can and should be handled electronically.

Some may say that a paper receipt is key for returns.  How many people are organized enough to keep receipts or even be able to find those receipts in the giant pile they may have.  Even for those who keep a receipt for a big ticket item like an  LCD TV for five years for warranty purposes, the print fades away completely over time as most retailers don’t spend the extra for archival paper that will last for as long as high ticket electronics.

In the age of mobile computing, there are no excuses for having only paper receipts at every retailer.   While I think most people have come to the same conclusion, I do encounter some who says that the paper receipt is going nowhere any time soon.  Let’s consider what’s driving the end of receipts.

Consider paper and how society’s relationship with it is changing with the explosion in the availability of cheap computing and the internet.

Newspapers -The electronic delivery of news has changed many things about the business of reading the news.  In my neighbourhood, the places where the rows of newspaper boxes once stood are now vacant.   Would anyone have thought all of that paper would stop moving?  Why would we print millions of pages and throw them all in the trash or recycling less than 24 hours later?

Bills – The phone bill, the electric bill, the water bill, the tax bill and all the rest of them used to come in the mail.  Every biller I deal with has pushed for electronic delivery over the past few years.  I only receive paper bills when I have no option.  Convenience, speed of delivery and environmental impact are driving paper bills to the periphery.

Books– Amazon UK recently reported that their eBook sales have exceeded the sale of regular books.  Traditional paper books will never be replaced, but there are times where it is more convenient to download a book whenever and wherever a reader wants it.  Why not let readers carry their whole library with them?  (Bonus: No paper receipt at purchase!)

Office Paper – For many years, the idea of a paperless office was a joke, and there still is a fair amount of paper that floats around the office.  What has changed is the printing of personal copies of presentations, the use of brochures, and the usual demands to have reports printed every time.  While it does still happen, my experience is that the requests for paper are decreasing considerably.  When I meet with customers, most are  more interested in a copy of the file we reviewed electronically.  Many of them even take notes on tablets now.  Even business cards are becoming less common.  If a prospective client or partner is interested in working with me, I’ll enter their email address right into my mobile right then and there, and then we pass the pertinent details automatically in the signature files of our emails (better yet via LinkedIn).  No need for paper to enter into the transaction.

More retailers should mirror these societal changes to paper by providing transactions without receipts.  As with any solution, there need to be benefits for both parties – the retailer and the consumer.   There are challenges, but also consider the benefits:


  • reduced paper usage = reduced cost/transportation/storage/environmental impact
  • reduced printer requirement (use of shared printers) = potential hardware & support savings
  • no more roll changes = increased uptime at point of sale
  • ability to connect customers to every transaction to get them a receipt = more customer information to drive a better understanding and direction on how to sell more
  • fewer forged receipts = reduced fraud
  • no need to change sales terms on receipt rolls = reduced waste/administrative effort
  • upsell space on receipts = increased sales
  • ability to link items on receipt to company website to drive upsell on related items = increased sales / closer customer relationships


  • no tracking of paper receipts
  • no paper to carry around or remember
  • no faded thermal receipts for warranties
  • easier tracking and filing of receipts
  • simpler no receipt returns

Make no mistake – paper is not going away completely.  There will still be book stores, there will still be greeting cards, there are still newspapers, and there will be paper receipts.  All of this is consumer driven.  Consumers should have the option to transact business in the manner of their choice where it is feasible.   If the choice is a paper receipt – that need can be accommodated.   It is the electronic transaction record that needs addressing.  It’s an area of retail ripe for change, and the timing is right.

2012.13 | iPad as Point of Sale Device

Given the ubiquity of the iPad, the adoration of the general public of the device, and my own personal ongoing interest and use of this device, consideration of using an iPad as a point of sale solution is a worthy point of discussion. After all, the word of our current age is innovation – we should embrace potential change such as this, and see where it may lead us. In the end, like every other solution in retail or otherwise, it’s about ROI, and if the iPad can deliver; why not?

As someone who has had an iPad since it was possible to get one and who has logged many a mile on it, it is a dream device for me personally. Convenient, simple, and incredibly multi-faceted, I use it every day and constantly. One of the most entertaining things about having an iPad is finding new uses for it and new apps to try.

For those of us who embrace it, it should come as no surprise that retailers are experimenting with it – evaluating different applications and apps in the store. There are many offerings that are fundamentally predicated on using an iPad as a POS: Square, Revel, Paypal, and there is an upcoming NCR solution to be released in June. (And yes, for full disclosure, I’m an NCR employee)

While payment processing is certainly a key element of the decision for these solutions, let’s set that aside for the moment and consider iPad from a hardware perspective. As much as we all want to skip the whole question and play with apps, the hardware should be fully considered from a usability and ROI perspective. In some ways the iPad is a hardware platform that can enable solutions we have dreamed about for years; in others it falls short.


The Positives:

Hardware Cost – iPad 2 units are now available at reduced rates, and can be had for as low as $419. Given that a retail hardened POS terminal is more like $800 to $1,000, the up front purchase price is certainly attractive – particularly for a small business. Keep in mind that a stand will also be necessary which will add $100 to $200 to the cost depending on the model and type, but it’s still quite affordable to obtain.

Displays – Because iPad is put out in such volume and has the latest technology, they have vibrant bright screens. The touchscreen is capacitive (my option of choice), and does not require calibration. In a nutshell, the touch display looks great and they work very well.

Durability – iPad is made for the consumer market – notorious for hard usage. For general use in a specialty or relatively clean and simple QSR environment, it will suffice as well. While I had initial misgivings about its durability, my experience with retailers is that it has lasted better than anticipated in real world retail environments. It’s definitely getting use and doing well.

Small Footprint – As you can see from pictures of the unit, it requires little space on a counter and can provide just about the smallest footprint possible; especially if you want to go full urban hipster mode with no receipt printer or cash drawer.

Software Updates – While the focus is on hardware, the apple ecosystem is hard to ignore as a point of the solution. Depending on the application used, software updates can be very simple even for the novice user. If the solution is cloud based, users would not have to do anything other than perhaps change the address to which their browser is pointing. For app based users, the app store is a familiar interface, and updating apps is a relatively simple matter.

Network – Cloud based offerings are a tremendous area of growth and I embrace them myself. I use Dropbox, iCloud and more. The challenge with a retail business is that when these services are down, the business is down. In the past I would have expressed concern about this, but reliability of these services is quite high and improving. Data centers like Apples and Amazons make this possible.

Extensibility – The iPad is a great platform to add apps as discussed. Many retailers are using the iPad for manager’s tools, inventory, and more. Why not add point of sale capability to the units?

On the whole, the iPad represents a tremendously viable point of sale platform for the right environment, subject to the availability of apps and payment processing interfaces to suit retailer and customer needs.


The Negatives:

Cost – While the iPad is slightly cheaper to obtain, the jury is out on how long they last. I’ve worked with some retailers who have used notebooks in retail environments for point of sale or sales tools. They lasted about 3 years. While you could argue that a user could just throw the unit out and buy another one, remember that retail hardened POS terminals are designed to last 7-10 years, and I’ve seen some last much longer. There are retailers running DOS because it’s working just fine. Also, while the hardened units are slightly more expensive, they do allow for simple modular repair, dual hard drive capability, remote supportability, software lockdown and more.

Displays – The iPad screen looks bright, but if I had come out to retailers and told them I had the best new point of sale solution in the world and it has a 9.7 inch screen, I would have been laughed out the door – and rightfully so. The screens are a bit small for a point of sale application in my experience. I’ve seen 12″ work well, and most retailers seem to think 15″ provides a good combination of real estate and visibility for the client and the retail associate. Some also accept 17″ displays, but it depends on the environment and the point of sale platform. The reflection on the iPad display can be difficult to read in brightly lit retail environments – particularly with the new intense lighting in some stores.

Durability – The consumer market is one thing, but the whole gamut of retail is another. While the iPads have been lasting well to date, and I’m sure they will do so, they haven’t yet had to deal with 7-10 years of dust. They haven’t dealt spills of a full drinks and survived (I have a friend who left an iPad outside in the rain over night; sadly it could not be resuscitated.) They are not made to deal with the head of direct sunlight – a challenge in some glassed in environments. (if you’ve ever used one outside in the sun, you may have experienced the automatic shutdown). While the iPads work very very well, they may be less able to accommodate more rugged requirements like DIY warehouse stores and intense QSR environments.

Small Footprint – While the iPad itself is smaller, if you have to use a cash drawer, printer and scanner, you won’t save that much real estate. Also note that the peripherals are effectively the same as those used on a regular point of sale device today, though some others have come out. I expect there will be some answers around this.

Batteries – One thing they never show in the pictures of these solutions is the power cord – it doesn’t look as pretty without the cable plugged in. The batteries do last a long time, but the units will always be on in a retail environment. Some solutions provide a battery pack which adds some battery life, but wherever there are batteries, there are people forgetting to charge them. It will be important to include a reminder to charge overnight – perhaps a dock – and to always keep a cord on hand.

Software Providers – Another brief comment on software. While Square and Paypal are both huge names right now, they are effectively offering a POS solution as a loss leader for payments processing. That means that retailers are locked into a POS solution based on their payments module. Retailers won’t care about this until they realize that to move they will have to update all of their inventory on to another system. This solution model is working very well today, and it may very well continue to do so and I hope it does. I think it can work, but it is a risk to consider. Retailers are in business for the long haul, and well as they have done, this is a new business model with relatively new players.

Chip and Pin – I’ve seen some interesting solutions to deal with Chip and Pin (using a pin pad to enter a code for card payments – we do that here in Canada) on iPod touch units with sleds. In America, they can use dongles in the headphone jack of the iPad, or in the bottom port, but in Canada that does not fly. Without Chip and Pin, this thing is a non-starter in the Canadian environment. There needs to be integration to a pin pad solution, but I’m not yet aware of one. Most pinpads are currently on RS-232 (sorry no ports on iPad), or on IP – that might work. Someone has to make that work before this can happen in Canada. Let me know if you have heard of any!

Solution Roadmap – iPad and all iDevices are on notoriously short roadmaps. Seen an iPod Classic lately? Didn’t think so. As a consumer device, it is entirely Apple’s prerogative to release new units every year – to change the size – to max out the screen resolution, to change the IOS platform, to add and remove ports and more – all at their whim. This may be fine, but it may start to impact a user that has an older unit. Will they be forced to upgrade because of changing specs? Will they have to source a different mount, a different payment device, a different peripheral at short notice as the units change every year?

Network – iPad only uses wifi. While this may not be a problem for some retailers, others are concerned about providing access to wifi networks in their businesses. I’ve also found that while I’ve had some rock solid experiences with wifi, some of my apple products will constantly lose connectivity with my wifi network, and the only way to fix it is to reset the router/modem. It’s a small issue, but worth thinking about.

I point out these issues not to rail against the iPad, but to point out potential obstacles. Sometimes in the rush towards new technology, these items can be overlooked. Better to have the issues in mind when looking to implement and consider them carefully prior to moving forward to ensure the best possible customer and store staff experience possible.


On the whole, the potential of the iPad as a retail device is incredible. The millions sold are a testament to the strength of the iPad, and the following behind it.
In my opinion, the iPad will see a great deal of use as the main point of sale device in a boutique independent environment to start. It lacks some of the power and performance needed by top tier retailers – particularly given their investment in complex and sophisticated point of sale, inventory, and ERP solutions that can’t be changed at a moment’s notice. However, as point of sale platforms continue to progress, you can expect to see those platforms leverage the iPad in some way. iPad or not, the point of sale device is definitely changing.

2012.01 | Mobile Coupons in 2011

It’s that time of year again.  January is the last month of the fiscal year for many retailers, and time for the NRF Big Show in NYC.  I’m attending this year, so if you happen to be at the show, come and say hello at the NCR booth (#415) !

Mobile Coupons Keep Coming – I read with interest a recent article indicating that Proctor & Gamble has partnered with mobeam on a solution to provide scanner readable mobile coupons to consumer mobile devices without the need to upgrade scanners already installed at stores.  My rudimentary understanding of the solution is that their technology allows mobile devices to communicate with store scanners by fooling them into thinking they are reading a regular barcode.

While Starbucks went the route of upgrading all of their scanners to models with imagers to accept mobile payments, that can be much more costly and challenging for a grocer with thousands and thousands of lanes, including many lanes in each store.  Having a solution that can read coupons without hardware upgrades makes the acceptance of mobile coupons a far simpler exercise.

I will be very interested to observe consumer acceptance of this idea.  One hurdle I’ve noticed on mobile tickets and payments is the awkward dance we all have when we get to a POS and want to use our mobile.  Neither the customer nor the cashier seems 100% certain of how the process should flow.  Do you hand the cashier the phone, do they point the scanner at the mobile?  Starbucks is still a bit awkward depending on the cashier.  Savvy cashiers place the scanner by the POS perpendicular to the cashier and customer so that customers can hold our own mobile device in front of it.

If a retailer has a handheld or single window vertical scanner, the process can be worked out as outlined above.  If they have a bioptic scanner or scanner-scale, things get very awkward as a customer either has to hand over their mobile or reach across various checkstand elements at the lane to expose the screen of their mobile.  In both cases, there is currently no indication to the customer when they should present their mobile device.   There should be a green light that indicates and is activated when it’s time to scan.  Not a blue light that’s on all the time.  I’ve placed my mobile in front of the scanner too soon from time to time.  These situations are certainly sub optimal.  Expect changes in checkstand and physical scanner design to accommodate mobile device to POS interface requirements.  The current checkstands are not designed for these transactions, and the process needs to be simplified so that my mom can do it if it is going to get to the mainstream.

The other issue with mobile coupons is dealing with multiple items.  If a customer is presenting one coupon, reading a barcode is no problem.  If a customer wants to present multiple coupons at one time, things becomes more complex.   Nobody wants to scan or hold up their mobile devices for multiple scans – especially if the customer has to search through to bring up different codes on their screen.  This will complicate the process and slow throughput at the front end of any business.  To simplify this process, it would be better to have a list of discounts on the screen and only one scan to the POS applies the coupons.  In my opinion, the best option is to allow for selection of offers and coupons online via mobile or web, and then scan a mobile device at the POS to identify the customer via a membership id number.  When that virtual loyalty card is scanned, discounts are applied automatically depending on purchases.

I see solutions like mobeam and the Starbucks mobile payment solutions as evolutionary and necessary solutions to move the POS forward.   These solutions allow early adopters to prove out the business case for using mobile devices at the POS and to establish the comfort level of the greater population with using mobile interfaced POS solutions.  Both of these solutions represent key stepping stones towards the ever elusive mobile wallet.

2011.42 | How Square’s Card Case Works

I was intrigued by the recent release of the Card Case App from Square.  Unlike the other mobile payment apps that involve tapping a mobile device or card on a contactless reader, Card Case attempts to remove the tender process from a transaction as much as possible.  While the mobile device has to be on their person, there is no need to pull out a wallet or a phone to complete a transaction.

Here’s how it works:

  • Users connect a current credit card to a registered account with Square that includes all of their personal information including a photo of themselves.
  • Users install the Card Case App on their iPhone or Android device.
  • Users can search out local businesses where they shop directly on the app on their mobile device.
  • Users can turn on ‘Always Auto Open Tab’ for merchants they frequent to enable purchases ‘over the air’.
  • When users are within a store where they have activated this ‘Always Auto Open Tab’ with their phone, the proximity of their mobile device to the store point of sale device causes their name and image to show on a list on the screen of the point of sale unit.
  • When a user wishes to complete a transaction, the user tells the cashier to put it on their tab, using their own name to identify themselves.
  • The cashier consults the point of sale device and identifies the user by their name and image that shows on the point of sale device.
  • The cashier selects that user, and the transaction is completed.
  • An eReceipt is provided to the customer via Square.

This payment solution is really a very clever way of getting away from the traditional pass of a card or currency from a customer to a retailer.  I would personally love this to become a standard payment.  I would use it in a second if it was available in my area.

Let’s consider some of the potential issues around this particular solution, to understand if it could become mainstream.

  • Integration Effort – Retailers must register with Square to accept payments via the Card Case solution.  Fees are low at 2.75% (3.5% with a card swipe), and make a lot of sense for smaller retailers, as they can replace a potentially more costly ‘traditional’ solution.  However, if we consider tier 1 and tier 2  chain merchants with significant scale, they already leverage current payment processing platforms.  Using Square is an additional payment scheme that has to be accommodated at a store.  Additional schemes mean additional cost and effort to implement and support.  They mean additional training for store staff.  They mean integration to current point of sale software platforms.  While retailers accommodate as many schemes as they can to suit their customer base, there is only so much complexity that can be handled.  Verdict: For the time being, I expect this to be more of a neighbourhood merchant solution, though inevitably someone will give it a try.
  • Connectivity – A mobile payment scheme like this assumes connectivity by default.  If either the user or the merchant loses connectivity for any reason, the mechanism to accept a payment is unavailable.  While connectivity is definitely improving across the board, it is by no means foolproof.  Most top tier retailers require a solution with very high uptime or at least some significant redundancy. Mobile signals can be dicey in some locations, no matter what carrier or device you use, there is a chance that in some locations it just won’t work.  Verdict: Given connectivity today, mileage will vary by location.  Some sites in subways or in the basements of highrises may not be able to use it at all.  This technical challenge will make it challenging for the solution to become common.
  • Errors & Scale –  In large cities or in very busy sites, there may be so many users in proximity to the store that the lists could become unmanageable.  In busy situations, it is also possible for cashiers to accidentally select the wrong user given many more to choose from.  Verdict: While unlikely that there will be so many users using the service at present, given significant population density and the busy nature of some urban businesses, popularity of the solution could render it more difficult to use for the cashiers.  I’m sure that issue could be dealt with.
  • Fraud & Security – While paying by name and image may be simple, streamlined, and civilized, it relies heavily upon a cashier’s personal discretion.  In the case of a small neighbourhood merchant, that may work just fine.  When you are a huge multinational retail organization with tens of thousands of employees across the country, the continent or the world, it’s a different story.  No matter how carefully employees are vetted, there are always bad apples. Based on current information, there is no mechanism beyond a cashier login log to discourage cashiers from assigning a charge without the permission of the user.  To take it a step further, users could be charged without even being in the store.  A user standing near a store could be charged by a cashier without any knowledge whatsoever.  While the user would inevitably be tipped off by an ereceipt, and the user would obviously only activate tabs at sites they trusted, security is still a valid concern.  Verdict: The sort of trust required for this sort of solution means it will have to stay small scale with trusted retailers.  If it expands to larger retailers, either users won’t turn on the automatic tab option, or there will be more fraudulent charges than it is worth.

I doubt that the intent of the automatic open tab functionality was to have it leveraged in a large scale retail implementation at all.  The trust requirement to make this solution work is a fundamental flaw for larger players, but it’s a novel idea all the same, and I hope it is successful enough that I can try it locally.

2011.40 | Impulse, Queueing, Entertainment & Apple Washing

Putting the impulse back into shopping – Loblaw in my local area experimented over the past number of months with no candy and magazine racking at the point of sale in some sites as part of a fixture refresh.  I personally liked the clean lines of the stores with this layout at Loblaw; no clutter, easy to see who is open for customers and which line is best.  It also gave a wide open feel at the front end of the store.  However, sales are more important than clean lines in most people’s books.  At my local store on Monday they re-installed racking with the magazines, gum and candy we all know so well.  Store staff indicated that magazines and candy just weren’t selling in  racks around the corner from the POS.

Single Queue – I’m seeing an increase of impulse fare in my area at other retailers, as some of them are moving towards a single queue.  Walmart escalated this queuing trend here in Canada, and others are also taking this approach.  Michael’s and the various banners of TJX including Winners, and Marshall’s (Style Sense was always this way), have moved to a single queue with a mini-maze of racks stocked with small impulse items on them to tempt you as you wait for a register to come available.    Some of the sites are also using simple queuing tools to indicate open tills to customers.  I am a fan of the approach, as the most equitable plan with flexibility for the site staff.  I no longer feel stiffed when a cashier takes a break and closes a lane when I’ve been waiting in that line.

Washroom Entertainment – In years past, visits to the washroom in restaurants was all business.  The most unusual item I ever experienced was Italian Language tapes over the sound system in the lavatories at some of my favourite Italian restaurants – entertaining and educational.  In a welcome effort to provide a unique experience to visitors, I’ve noticed more and more in the way of cute items in the washrooms of restaurants – funny posters, 2d barcode posters, TV’s over the urinals, ads on urinal pucks and increasingly digital signage.  While  in Montreal this week, I saw something that took that up a notch.  While visiting a very new and slick looking St Hubert Express, the washroom featured projected video of the top of a gravel pool of fish over the sink. While certainly not aimed at my amusement, I definitely see the benefits of this to drive the children to spend some extra time washing their hands.  It’s nice to see someone paying attention to the small details.  I do wonder about the long term viability of such a solution, but time will tell.

Washing Produce – I saw a great solution on line this week for produce.  Adhesive labels  for fruits and vegetables to provide PLU and GS1 Databar codes that turn to soap when they are wetted, so that there is no sticker waste from produce.  Instead, a useful anti-bacterial soap to ensure food safety.  Love the idea.  I expect the focus on apples is due to the fact that many other kinds of produce are often sprayed with water in the store for various reasons – dissolving the stickers in advance of purchase.

2011.34 | eReceipt Retailers in North America

I’m not sure what is driving the sudden interest, but there has been a small run on eReceipts in the news.

New York Times | Consumer Reports | NPR | ….and many others weigh in

I had a recent request from a reader asking if I knew of an online list of retailers leveraging eReceipts and I do not.  What better way to address such a shortcoming than putting together a list right here.  The following are retailers where I am aware of an eReceipt option being available.  These were gathered from various articles online, corporate websites and various personal experiences.  Strangely, few of them have any information on this option on their corporate websites.  I expect a comprehensive list will eventually be a list of all retailers.

Apple Store – Apple store has offered eReceipts for some time, and have a slight advantage over may retailers in that many customers have an iTunes account online with a credit card number on file.  This allows for a receipt to be sent automatically based on the credit card number swiped.  No need to take down an email address.  I have used this option numerous times personally and the difference between this and an iTunes receipt is effectively nil.  The solution works well, and the eReceipt is a good fit for their business model and customer segment.

Gap / Old Navy / Banana Republic – The banners for Gap certainly offer eReceipts in the US and Canada, though I have only personally had experience with Old Navy in Canada.  Seems to work pretty flawlessly, though telling someone your email address or typing it onto a pinpad seems to open up opportunities for errors, meaning a receipt might be lost.  That said, I find Gap brands seem to be quite liberal with returns as long as items are in sale-able condition anyway, so not having a receipt isn’t the end of the world, but the system could use improvement.

Hertz – Not a retailer, but as a consumer facing business that offers receipts, they qualify.  Their site works very well, allowing search on drivers license and credit card numbers and are sortable by date.  Quite often you don’t want to wait at a travel counter for a receipt and you end up losing the paper anyway.  Very handy.

Nordstrom – I know Nordstrom is piloting a mobile devices, and I personally feel eReceipts are the best option for those devices to keep up throughput and to simplify the process.  Paper receipts are still available and always should be, as customers should always have that option if they want it.

Patagonia – One of the companies profiled in the NYT article, Patagonia began offering 9 months ago, with only one third of customers opting in.  Frankly, in my mind, removing one third of paper receipts is a significant impact to the business.

Sears / Kmart – In the US, the Sears organization has some leveraged some relatively forward thinking technology, and eReceipts are among those ideas.  Kmart is apparently offering electronic receipts as part of the Shop Your Way Rewards program.  I also have friends and colleagues that have opted for eReceipts at Sears in the US.

Whole Foods – Working with MyReceipts, some Whole Foods sites can now offer electronic receipts.   MyReceipts indicates it also supports electronic receipts for retailers including Wegmans, Office Depot, Best Buy, and Walmart.

I am a proponent of getting paper out of the equation given the number of shopping trips many of us complete in any given week.   I truly feel we can have an incredible impact on paper usage and cost in much the same way that we are impacting plastic bags – in Canada at least – the number of bags you see are way down. Personally, I think it would also help to unclutter everyone’s lives.  I already scan all of my paper receipts and paper mail and shred the rest.  This saves me a step and might make things slightly more searchable.

What are the potential challenges of moving to eReceipts?

Potential POS throughput impact – Asking every customer for an email address, mobile number or other unique identifier can slow down the queue in a store if not implemented correctly.  Allowing customers to connect their email address or eReceipt provider/account via their credit card number or loyalty card number on a retailer website or opting in at the POS once would minimize errors and ensure consistent POS throughput.  Ideally an NFC wallet that can provide payment and receipt functionality down the line would avoid the problem of registering altogether.

Receipts not provided – If an email addresses or other unique identifiers is entered incorrectly, this can cause complications and confusion for the customer – potentially around returns.  It is important to have a simple yet solid method to validate the correct path to deliver the receipt.  The other potential link in the chain is connectivity to the internet.  That concerns some, and yet I would argue that internet connectivity up-time seems to be pretty solid in most areas, and even if it goes down, the transactions can pile up and be sent when the store is online once more.

Shrink / Security Issues – Security has been simplified for years by just checking to see if customers had a shopping bag – secondary security check is a receipt.  With increasingly few customers carrying shopping bags, and now with no receipt, it can become more challenging for store staff or the Shrink team to identify thievery vs honest purchases with no receipt or bag.

Privacy – Of course the papers highlighted everyone’s concerns around privacy, but I have to ask what privacy they actually feel is being violated?  The credit card companies can see everything that you buy.  The retailers can already see your basket and know what you buy.  You are going to be targeted for advertising, so why not let it be for something you might actually want?  If it isn’t for what you want, there is always an opt out with all of these top tier retailers, and there are codes of ethics for marketing associations to not spam their customers – and it’s just bad business anyway.  I feel that this opens us up to a better world – imagine you need to return something and instead of digging through your George Costanza wallet to find your receipt you tell the customer service person your email address and approximate date of purchase.  Return done simply and without paper. Why are we still carrying this stuff?

Bottom line – I like eReceipts, and it’s going to happen.  There is value to the customer (convenience) and to the retailer (less paper logistics, no roll replacements, less paper work, no forged receipts) and for the environment (less garbage).  In the end, however, like all other consumer facing situations, it is all about choice and retailers should be sure to provide options, not requirements.  If customers don’t want an eReceipt – give them a paper receipt.

So who did I miss?  I know that there are various providers who provide an ereceipt capability to Mom & Pop stores, and small chains, but these are the big ones I know about.  Let me know who else has an eReceipt option – some online details to back it up would be appreciated  – and I’ll add them to the list.

[Note – if you truly want an eReceipt solution today across all your purchases, you can go the route I did – Purchase a Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500 or like product, and have the images automatically transferred online to Evernote via their PC client software.  Set a notebook for receipts, and off you go.  A fully searchable database of receipts that you can access from your Mac or PC, your tablet, your mobile device, or anywhere you have an internet connection.  Added bonus of no paper in your house!. – Inspired by Mark Fraunfelder via Boingboing]

Update 9/16 – @fornaom indicated Anthropologie, Banana Republic and Urban Outfitter provide eReceipt options.  I have also seen these online in various places.  Also confirmed through purchase that Gap banners are asking for email addresses, and when you use your credit card, they validate your email address with you on the pinpad so you get your email receipt.  Strangely I received both paper and email receipts.  This seems like a waste, but also know that debit/credit may require a paper receipt at least.

2011.32 | Speech Recognition @ Retail

Speech Recognition

I really enjoyed reading over this recently released infographic on speech recognition.  Things have come a long way since a keyboard challenged office mate of mine bought a headset with attached microphone and commenced annoying my area of the office with his verbal discussions with his word processor over a decade ago.

Google’s iPhone app has had speech recognition capability for ages now, but I don’t really use it when I can just type something in – most searches are short enough that speaking it isn’t worth it.

I also have used Dragon Dictation for iPhone and iPad, but I’ve found I need to change my thought process for text entry.  It’s useful for a slightly longer text message if one is alone, but I don’t find that I speak out loud in the same way that I write, so the dictation app is not as useful for my use of  jobs like word processing – or blogging.

While I don’t find it useful for writing or searching, speech recognition is extremely useful in the car, when you cannot access your phone while driving – it is illegal in my area, so hands free operation is a must.  With solutions like Blue Ant’s S4, connected to Vlingo it is even possible to hear and send text messages and more via speech to text and text to speech.

In fact, from a retailer and consumer facing organization’s perspective, the biggest opportunities for voice recognition could be for using in an automobile scenario.  As per my last post, 2011.31 being able to order while driving by talking to the car is a twist on the mobile channel that provides an increased level of convenience for time constrained consumers.

Another interesting angle is the potential of providing speech recognition solutions in a drive thru environment for quick service restaurants.  While having customers use a touch screen would slow the order taking capability, if speech recognition improved enough, it could provide a potential throughput improvement for a drive thru.  Instead of relaying items to an attendant who lists them on the screen at car side, speech recognition could do the same thing more quickly and ideally more accurately – showing the customer items on the screen as they are spoken.  Sites with multiple lanes could be monitored by one person with improved throughput.

To take it further, this system could even be extended away from the outside of the restaurant.  Clients could dial a number for their local Quick Service Restaurant from their car and put together their order via speech recognition, and be given a unique and memorable order number –  their mobile number perhaps.  When they arrive at the drive thru, they can identify their order with the number.  The order can be pulled from the POS system as a suspended order, and the customer proceeds to the payment and pickup windows.  This would allow the customer to speed their ordering, and the restaurant to increase throughput at the busiest part of many locations.

As always, there would be a great deal of tweaking to be done, particularly around operations.  For example, if items are out of inventory, the system needs to know so that customers cannot order items that are out of stock, and ideally alternatives are provided to the customers.  In order to prepare this for prime time, some serious stress testing would need to be completed.

Speech recognition is far from optimal at present but has improved incredibly.  We have all dealt with IVRs that frustrate us, for example while trying to get help on a hotel reservation or change our phone service, but as it improves some intriguing possiblities reveal themselves.

Image Created by: Medical Transcription

2011.30 | Retail Innovation Linkdump

July and August have completely overwhelmed me with new ideas for retail technology!  Here are some fascinating links and where I found them:

via PSFK:

As always, PSFK has lots of useful information coming in their Future of Retail Report – be sure to check it out.

via Boingboing:

  • Check out the recyclable pizza box from well documented NY store Eataly that is recyclable even though it has had pizza grease on it.  The intrepid pizza box collector gets to the Eataly box at about 2.30 of the video if you can’t wait.

via The Splendid Table:

  • NYC is recruiting customer snitches to identify retailers that might be overcharging at the POS versus posted prices.  Snitches can identify wrongdoers via twitter or Facebook.
via @Wired:
  • Digital Signage is everywhere, but have you seen the massive American Eagle digital sign in Times Square?  Check out some interesting uses of that sign.

2011.29 | Mobile Retail Apps

In order to get the attention of today’s consumer, retailers need to provide the best possible experience from any channel where customers wish to interface with them.  Michael’s – home to the crafty types – has put together their own mobile app with a spin towards functionality that they feel that their following would enjoy – things like video examples and mobile versions of datasheets, as well as the usual coupons and offers.  Sounds terrific.

Here are a few thoughts about following in their footsteps with an iPhone app:

1.  Ensure your target market are iPhone users.  I’m sure Michael’s checked that and decided that the development was worthwhile.  Mobile apps are inexpensive compared to many enterprise level retail software development efforts, so it probably wasn’t a difficult decision.  Because Michael’s already had a library of web based resources anyway, the only addition was probably the iPhone interface.

Fundamentally, with web services in place they can all be leveraged to build an app for another platform.  More practically, I recommend a mobile web based interface for the retailer’s website that will work on any platform.  There are platforms that will automatically re-format the screens to fit any size device – Blackberry, iPhone, Android, Windows and more – based on the browser and screen resolution of the device accessing the page.  This is more a function of practicality than design.  Why provide functionality to users on one platform, when for a similar cost, you could provide it to all smartphone users?

Examples of mobile web instead of apps click on theses links with your mobile: LLBean and Sears. For lots of examples of apps, check out my page on Canadian retailers with links to social media and apps.  A recent article indicates that retailers are starting to follow this web format instead of iPhone apps.

2.  Make sure the mobile app has functions that are practical and add to the customer experience you want to provide.  Just because an advertising company will throw in an app for free as part of a contract, or your head of marketing wants to have an app to see your logo in the apple store doesn’t necessarily make it worthwhile to the consumer.  In fact, if the app doesn’t add anything new to the arrangement, the consumer may feel you have been wasting their time.    A standard store finder isn’t enough – I can just do that on the maps application.  However, one that shows via a coloured icon that the store is currently open, as is used on Starbucks Canada or McDonalds Canada, is a pretty good idea.  The Home Depot Canada app has a function to measure screws and various other items.  All of these are examples of trying to do something different that is helpful, and can enhance the customer experience for their specific clientele.  I can’t tell you the idea that will make your app or web based store, but your customers might!  Ask them.

3.  Ensure the app can identify the user in a way that the customer can opt in or opt out.  Most retailers have a loyalty program in place.  What better way to identify the customers than leveraging this same infrastructure?  Be certain that opting in works flawlessly and simply and that nobody is forced to identify themselves.  In fact, if there is an additional benefit to the customer to identifying themselves on the app, all the better.  If there is extra functionality for loyalty users, they are more likely to identify themselves and be happy about it.

Why identify customers?  There are benefits to customers and retailer alike.  First, if the customer is identified, it is possible to provide a unique experience for that customer.  Whether it is default languages or remembering shopping lists, having that identification allows the retailer to provide additional benefits to the consumer, and they in turn may have the opportunity to opt in to the experience that they wish to have across mobile, POS and web interfaces.  A customized experience can drive loyalty, which drives bigger baskets and more sales.

Secondly, having the identification in place allows retailers the ability to identify what channels and functionality are used and by whom.  Considering the myriad opportunities for IT investment, knowing who is using what in what way provides a validation of customer usage against customer sales.  If only 200 customers are using your iPhone app, that may seem like a bad investment, but if 90% of them are in your top segment for sales, that may not be the case.  Just looking at downloads of an app is not good enough anymore.  This also turns around for the customers.  Seeing what customers are using ensures that the best channels and functionality are available to them for their retailer.

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