Wal-Mart Latest To Try Smartphone Solution To Long Checkout Lines

Wal-Mart is testing a mobile app checkout system that will let customers scan items where-ever they find them in the store - hopefully reducing the length of checkout line at the giant retailer. The trial program is the latest in a series of mobile-based solutions designed to cure the dreaded human condition known as the queue.

Wal-Mart's Scan & Go app, which is being tested in a single store near the company's Bentonville, Ark., headquarters, enables shoppers to scan goods with their iPhones, bagging them as they shop in the store. Shoppers don't actually pay with the app itself; the transaction is conducted at a self-checkout kiosk before the customer leaves the store.

Lower Fees For Retailers

App-based shopping is a big focus for the retail mega-giant. In mid-August, Wal-Mart was one of several companies (along with Best Buy and Target) that formed the Merchant Customer Exchange. The MCX is developing an app expected to provide coupons, rebates and loyalty programs - and possibly conduct transactions - within member stores.

For Wal-Mart and its fellow MCX members, its clear that the retailers are looking for ways to stake a claim on the payment process. As credit card companies and third-party payment systems like PayPal seek to attract more consumers, retailers are worried about having to pay higher fees. Taking control of the process would help them avoid that prospect.

Shorter Lines Are Good For Everyone

On a broader scale, the implementation of such distributed mobile-app-based payment systems should help shorten check out lines.

Wal-Mart's Scan & Go wont completely eliminate checkout backups, but shoppers should be able to speed through a kiosk more quickly since their items have already been scanned. In March, Wal-Mart announced it planned to add more self-checkout kiosks, perhaps in anticipation of the Scan & Go program. 

This larger trend of queue-reduction is showing up in retailers of all sizes, typically facilitated by replacing cash registers with portable, often tablet-based point-of-sale systems that sit on a tablet rather than a cash register. Apple Stores are perhaps the best-known example of what this kind of queue busting system could look like.

Cutting Lines Everywhere

Retailers are not the only place where lines are in the cross-hairs. Airports and airlines are experimenting with tablet-based apps that will assist departing passengers with the check-in line. 

In Singapore's Changi Airport, Changi Experience Agents use their mobile platforms to assist passengers with special needs, locate missing luggage, and get passengers checked-in efficiently. Spain's Iberia airline is using customized iPads known as IBPads to help customer service agents assist passengers wherever they may be in the airport, reducing lines at gates and check-in counters.

The mobile apps are the next step after the self-service check-in kiosks already popular as interfaces between flyers and airline agents.

Going Where The Customer Is

These queue-cutting plans all have one thing in common: bringing the customer service provider to the customer rather than forcing the customer through one physical area to meet with the service provider. Wal-Mart's app is a variation on that theme: distribute some of the customer-service tasks (scanning) back to the customer in the store aisles to speed up the one part of the process where the customer still has to go.

Saving money is also part of the equation, but not necessarily the biggest part.  According to Reuters, "the company spends about $12 million in cashier wages every second at its Walmart U.S. stores." But adding more self-checkout kiosks doesn't necessarily save on wages, according to Raymond D. Jones, Managing Director of consulting firm Dechert-Hampe & Co.

"The impetus for self-checkouts was originally driven by the retailer operations groups who saw the opportunity to employ technology to cut costs and improve efficiency of the checkout. However, many retailers report that actual labor savings were 'soft' and ROI disappointing," Jones wrote on RetailWire earlier this year. There are other concerns, too. "Studies show that consumers are less likely to shop for impulse items at the self-checkout. Coupled with poor merchandising approaches, this has resulted in a significant blow to the impulse sales at checkout."

Brick and mortar retailers will have find a way around these problems. In the face of increasing competition with online retailers, stores simply can't afford to discourage shoppers with long, intimidating lines.

Wal-Mart image courtesy of Northfoto / Shutterstock.

Airport image also courtesy of Shutterstock.