Turning the front end upside down

Will this be the year that the Global Data Synchronization Network (GDSN) finally takes off?

By Kim Ann Zimmermann

Even the best shopping experience can take a turn for the worse in the last ten minutes. It is no wonder customers hate the checkout process. Waiting on a long line to fork over your cash while the kids grab for candy and the shopper in front of you is trying to use a dozen expired coupons isn’t at all appealing.

For the past decade or more, supermarkets have tried to make the experience more entertaining with in-lane television networks and digital signage. But when push comes to shove, customers want to make a quick exit once they’re done shopping.

To minimize the pain of the checkout process, front-end manufacturers have been developing new systems and strategies to accommodate a smoother exit, including more accurate barcode recognition technology and lanes that can convert from self-checkout to a cashier-manned lane on the fly.

“This is really a dynamic area and there are a lot of things driving checkout design right now, including sustainability, PCI compliance and the need to accommodate the GS1 DataBar,” says Jim Vance, president of Pan-Oston, based in Bowling Green, Ky.

According to industry observers, one of the most talked-about concepts recently has been the “deconstruction” of the checkout process. Emerging technologies such as hand-held and on-cart scanners have enabled customers to take charge of the scanning part of the transaction, so that the payment portion can be handled quickly at a dedicated paystation for a speedy retreat. But making that work on a large scale will mean a shakeup at the front end.

“While retailers truly want customers to take their time and explore every aisle, they don’t necessarily want them spending more time in the store waiting to be checked out,” says Doug Wallace, vice president of the U.S. retail division of Austin, Texas-based Wincor Nixdorf.

This is why the strategy of splitting the scanning and tender functions of the checkout process has become popular in Europe and is beginning to capture the attention of some U.S. retailers, Wallace says. “I feel like we’re on the cusp of some significant change,” he says.

Alan Outlaw, SurePOS portfolio business line executive for retail store solutions at Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM, says the idea of separating some of the steps in the checkout process is gaining momentum. “We’re starting to get more inquiries about how we can segregate the various parts of the transaction,” he says.

Outlaw sees this as part of an overall trend of giving consumers choices at the checkout. “Customers, including me, are very fickle,” he says. “One day, I’m in there for a quick trip and I go to the self-checkout lane. Another day, when I’m doing a heavy-duty shopping trip, I want a traditional checkout with a cashier. I’m still the same customer, but I have different needs depending on the day.”

He says going forward, front-end systems may not be limited to the front of the store. “Supermarkets are highlighting their prepared meals for lunches and dinners, but that customer is not going to be pleased if they’re trying to grab a quick meal to go and they’re faced with a huge line,” he says. For this reason, the strategy of dotting the store landscape with small checkout lanes in key areas such as the deli and prepared foods is gaining traction, he says.

Sarah Burkhart, director of product marketing for Charlotte, N.C.-based Source Technologies, says retailers can differentiate themselves by their use of front-end systems, kiosks and other devices throughout the store. “These are the store’s own branding devices,” she says. “It is really all about creativity and how retailers deploy these devices and encourage consumer interactivity and engagement.”

Source Technologies recently introduced The 5-Series Plus bill payment kiosk. “It combines all of the benefits of the current bill payment kiosk product with the ability to process transactions more quickly and incorporate digital signage and marketing efforts onto the kiosk,” says Burkhart.

Shrinking the checkout

With checkouts being sprinkled throughout the store—not to mention being squeezed into smaller spaces when in their traditional position at the front of the store—manufacturers have tweaked the designs to make them fit into tighter spaces. One example is Duluth, Ga.-based NCR Corp.’s recent introduction of what company officials call the first personal-size checkout. The checkout is half the size of the standard NCR one-bag checkout.

The NCR SelfServ Checkout Mini is a compact checkout solution, including a 17-inch touch screen, a two-sided receipt printer, presentation scanner and optional hand-held scanner and coupon collection device, according to company officials. The system is available in floor-standing or countertop configurations.

“Customers are changing their shopping habits and point-of-sale solutions have to change with them,” says John Saccomanno, NCR’s industry marketing director. “There are a larger number of consumers with smaller basket sizes. Retailers are constantly evaluating the mix of self-service lanes, but a lot of retailers just don’t have the space to add more lanes at the front end, so our smaller system was built with that in mind.”

Patrick Majerus, senior director of systems and product integration for the IT services group at Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Fujitsu America, says there is growing interest among retailers in using a wide range of POS configurations.

“We have offerings in small, medium, large and extra large,” he says. While Fujitsu has offered POS systems of various sizes and configurations for some time, he says the company is receiving more inquiries as retailers look for ways to accommodate the changing needs of shoppers.

In particular, he says retailers are examining self-service options. “Self-service is no longer a low-luster system,” Majerus says. “Now the motto for many retailers and their customers is that the best service is self service. Flexibility is key.”

While POS systems have to fit into tighter quarters, they have also become more rugged. Fujitsu, for example, designs its POS systems so that the unit can be placed against a partition in checkout stand without burning out from overheating.

“Retailers are sweating out their technology assets, so they are looking to get the most out of the POS systems they have in place,” says NCR’s Saccomanno. “We’re taking retail ruggedness to the next level. Minimizing failures as much as possible is important and there is also an emphasis on the speed of repairs and getting systems back up and running as soon as possible if there is a failure.”

Retailers are increasingly relying on remote management of their POS systems to flag problems before there is a system failure, he says.

Improved ergonomics

POS systems also have to accommodate the physical demands of cashiers, according to Pan-Oston’s Vance. “There is a high rate of workers’ compensation claims in the retail environment, particularly since much of the work involves repetitive motion,” he says. “We’ve improved the ergonomics of our new checkout lanes and they have received high marks from cashiers.”

Vance says the company has also improved the user interface to make the POS system more intuitive so that new cashiers can get up to speed quickly and all operators can make a smooth transition when there is a change in procedures. “With the amount of turnover that most retailers experience, the systems have to be easy to use, so we’ve spent three years working on the colors, button sizes and other things to make the system more iPodish,” he says. “We’ve taken a nontechnical approach to the user interface.”

Pan-Oston recently added the Utopia EZ to its self-checkout line. Company officials say it is the first self-checkout lane priced below $15,000 and less than a traditional belted takeaway lane. According to Vance, the Utopia EZ is also compliant with the “Three Rs” of sustainability—reduce, reuse and recycle.

Saccomanno says NCR has taken some of the lessons it learned in developing self-service technology and translated them to its cashier-operated systems. “We’ve improved the intuitive nature of the systems based on what we learned with the self-service systems,” he says.  “The graphics are better and we lead the operator through the steps.”

When a cashier or a customer at the self-checkout hits a roadblock, it is important to make it clear as to how to take the next step, says IBM’s Outlaw. “Exceptions can really slow down the process for operators, so we have focused on making sure they can make a quick recovery when something unexpected happens.”

As POS technology evolves, there may no longer even be the need for the cashier to drag the items over the scanner. Wallace of Wincor Nixdorf says the company is working on a “virtual tunnel” that can scan items as they pass through.

“Optical recognition and scanning systems are becoming so sophisticated that the system can scan the product regardless of orientation or presentation,” he says. “And if part of the barcode is missing or can’t be read, the system can recognize that it is a can of soup, for example, based on the size and color and fill in the missing information. That’s the future.”

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