The Self-Checkout Future: Customized, Faster And More Dangerous

Jane's contactless loyalty card is detected as the Des Moines attorney approaches the self-checkout. The system knows the counselor's shopping history and anticipates that the counselor likely has a dozen kiwis in her cart.

So when she places the barcode-less fruit on the scale, the first fruit it displays in its list is kiwi, followed by the four fruits and vegetables that Jane typically buys. Other fruits and vegetables follow alphabetically after Jane's favorites have been displayed. Given how many fruits Jane buys each time, this shaves a precious 108 seconds off of her checkout.

Behind her is Arthur and his loyalty card flags his language as Spanish—and the next customer's as Korean—so the self-checkout screen will default to those languages. Sure, the customer could have selected those languages, but it saves more seconds because they don't have to. The system also defaults to those customers' favorite payment card.

These scenarios are not actively deployed today, other than in very limited trials. But the technology capabilities exist. NCR, for example, is actively working on self-checkout personalization, with the fruit, language and payment preferences, said Dusty Lutz, the product director for NCR's Fastlane line.

Today, self-checkout units are mostly used in a couple of lanes—sometimes, just one—as a supplement to other staffed lanes. But the industry is inching toward making self-checkout the norm. The UK's Tesco has been experimenting in the U.S. with an all self-checkout approach, which it is saying is working quite well.

Before we draw too many conclusions from that trial's released results, it's important to remember that even if the results are true (a retailer fudging numbers to make their experiment look better? Preposterous, you say), it's a self-selected sample. In most grocery stores, there are customers who hate self-checkout, those who like it and those who don't really care. Given that Tesco's Fresh & Easy stores are all-self-checkout, any consumer who hates self-checkout would simply choose to not go there. So the universe of potential participants at such shops is already somewhat comfortable with self-checkout.

One of the obstacles to self-checkout has been age-related items that require staff intervention, such as cigarettes and alcohol. Lutz estimated that three out of every 10 self-checkout purchases need some kind of staff interaction.

Although no one has come up with an automated system designed to identify age, some British convenience stores are getting closer.

Those stores have started an age-verification biometric trial with software that can recognize faces. That program isn't designed to look at a face and project its age—although that is precisely what many store cashiers have been asked to do for decades—but it instead compares those faces against known age offenders (usually underage consumers who have been caught).

But the technology will soon be to a point where the software will be able to both guess likely under-age purchasers and use biometrics to match a consumer to a loyalty card. That loyalty card could include a much more rigorous (birth certificate, for example) age verification.

Where smartcarts or electronic shopping assistants are being tested, a popular capability is uploading a shopping list from a home computer and having it appear on the shopping assistant, once the loyalty card is swiped.

But once such devices and those downloaded lists become typical, consumers could be given the opportunity to signal when they intend to shop, giving the store the opportunity to prioritize which products are unpacked and brought to the shelves first. If the lists could be downloaded early enough, it could directly impact purchasing decisions.

For stores willing to forego some upsells, what if a store associate selected those products that were less subjective (canned foods) and had them already placed in the cart, leaving more subjective items (such as bananas or fish) for the shopper to choose. That might be worth enough to make the last consumer holdouts upload their lists.

But there's a dark side to all of these possibilities. When technology advances and gives devices capabilities that were not initially intended, security holes emerge.

This happened when printers, copiers and scanners became more intelligent and networked, often with their own IP addresses. Suddenly, these office workhorses had a healthy amount of RAM, substantial hard-disks and intelligent CPUs.

That innocuous-looking printer morphed into a powerful front-door to the entire LAN, a front-door that no one ever bothered to lock. People asked: Why secure it? After all, it's just a printer, isn't it?

The next generation of kiosks is going to accept payments (cash, various payment cards plus alternative payments), be able to hand over merchandise (such as DVDs and even fresh fruit) and have high-speed wireless access to both the network and payment authentication systems.

As self-checkout systems and smart devices start becoming much more sophisticated and full-functioned, especially as they are attended to less, the potential for security breaches grows exponentially. But why worry? After all, they're just self-checkout terminals, right?