Smart Wireless Checkout Running Into Speedbump

A wireless item-level checkout device being trialed by regional grocery chain Stop & Shop is demonstrating the potential—and simultaneously the difficulties--of distributed checkout.

The 389-store grocery chain—employing about 59,000 in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine, New Hampshire, New York and New Jersey—has been running this trial since October at 90 of its stores in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

The device being investigated is from Modiv Media and is called the Modiv Shopper by the vendor and the EasyShop by the retailer. It's the next generation of the Shopping Buddy and it works similarly, in that consumers slide their loyalty card at a kiosk, which issues them a wireless device that sits in their carts.

As they move through the store, the device sends them commercials based on their purchase history as well as what they have scanned into their cart—the device does that scanning—plus their exact location in the store at that moment.

The device has no touchscreen and very limited buttons, but it can receive a signal from other systems, such as Stop & Shop's automated deli system. The device, for example, can display a message when a deli order is ready for pickup.

Perhaps the most intriguing of its capabilities is how it can interact with self-checkout—or a regular staffed checkout aisle—and save the time of having to rescan everything in.

Stop & Shop has a different program called Payvantage, which keeps on record a preferred payment method. This theoretically should allow for consumers to checkout of the store the instant after they scan their last purchase, from wherever in the store they happen to be standing at the time. With a wireless device that has scanned all of their purchases—and a payment method already approved—why force customers to push their groceries to the self-checkout—or any other POS station—and wait in the line? Or the customer could simply go to a less crowded area of the store for help with bagging their purchases.

Modiv CEO Bob Wesley said other retailers have said they would indeed be interested in a complete wireless checkout. He didn't comment on Stop & Shop but a Stop & Shop spokesman said the chaIn--at this time--wasn't using that capability and referred questions about it to Modiv.

Asked why retailers were not doing it, Wesley said that it was a change in consumer behavior, which consumers tend to resist, especially when the overall experience is already quite alien to them.

That's true to a point, but this process wouldn't be asking the consumer to do anything uncomfortable, especially leave the store much more quickly.

The true answer seems to lie with the security mechanism. When a consumer needs to check out, they are asked to swipe their loyalty card again to verify that they are who they said they were. But why seek that, given that the card was already swiped when the unit was picked up? Is the fear that a consumer could have the unit stolen from them while shopping, which would then allow the thief to make as many purchases as they wanted for free? Wesley wouldn't say, only indicating that there was an unspecified technology issue involving database lookups that required consumers to go to a POS and re-swipe their cards.

The earlier version of the unit was a touchscreen and it allowed those deli orders to be placed from within the cart. But consumer preferences for a smaller unit with fewer buttons and options killed that convenience.

Stop & Shop isn't alone in these kinds of experiments, with fellow regional grocer ShopRite experimenting with similar devices.

The Stop & Shop trial is certainly an encouraging move in the right direction, but it's clear that consumer hesitation and security concerns will make this wireless in-store dance one of "two steps forward, one step back."