NCR offers upgrades
At the National Retail Federation show in New York this week, vendors such as NCR were unveiling technology upgrades. NCR has developed an image-based capability that can recognize certain products. Instead of keying in a product code for a banana, for instance, the system recognizes the banana, said Dusty Lutz, general manager for retail self-service solutions at NCR.
Lutz said NCR is trying to make the job of running these systems easier for IT by including such features as predictive capabilities. For instance, the self-service checkout system can monitor CPU temperatures and if something starts running outside of normal ranges, it will trigger an alert before a more serious issue occurs. "It's not designed to create a new burden for the IT staff," he said.
Bill Gribbons, a professor of information design and corporate communication at Bentley University, who also works on usability issues at the college's Design and Usability Center, questions the future of self-service kiosks. He said kiosk systems are more focused on getting rid of clerks, not on helping consumers. And that's why some stores have removed them.
"The value to the business is very clear," said Gribbons. "The value to the shopper is less clear."
Gribbons believes more promising technologies will include tablets with card swipes integrated into shopping carts or smartphone apps. These technologies will be automatically synched with the customer's shopping list, and might include home ordering capabilities.
Instead of having customers stand in line at checkout, "the solution is to eliminate the lines completely, and then there is value to both the business and the consumer," said Gribbons.
Jerry Sheldon, an analyst at IHL Consulting Group, which looked at this technology trend, says Walmart's purchase solidifies front-end self-checkout kiosks systems as a mature tech choice. Walmart only invests in a technology "that they are going to be certain of a return on it."
The cost of the Walmart system was not disclosed, but a ballpark price of four units -- a pod -- is some where in the $70,000 to $80,000 range, said Sheldon.
Sheldon doesn't see kiosks systems going away, but believes stores may move to hybrid models that give shoppers an array of approaches to meet the unique characteristics of their customers. The impact on cashiers remains to be seen.
Daniel Castro, a senior analyst at the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, says there are about 2.7 million cashiers working in retail. It's a number that should grow as new stores open, but would decline if fewer cashiers are needed.