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Walmart's 'Scan & Go' iPhone app: The future of shopping?
The discount shopping giant experiments with letting customers use smartphones to speed through the checkout process. Will it work?
 
A new smartphone-app-based system would allow Walmart customers to scan bar codes as they take items off the shelves and bypass checkout lines.
A new smartphone-app-based system would allow Walmart customers to scan bar codes as they take items off the shelves and bypass checkout lines.
CC BY: Walmart Stores

Walmart is test-driving a system that could dramatically change the way Americans shop. The program, called Scan & Go, lets customers scan their own goods with their smartphones then pass through a self-checkout line, and zip out of the store. The company recently conducted a trial run with employees and their friends and families at a Walmart Supercenter in Rogers, Ark., not far from the retail giant's Bentonville headquarters. If all goes well, the nation's largest retailer could begin rolling out Scan & Go nationwide. Is this the future of shopping? Here, a brief guide:   

How does the system work?
First, shoppers install the Scan & Go app on their iPhones. Then, while cruising Walmart's aisles, they scan the bar codes of the items they pull off the shelves, and bag them as they shop. Once they've got everything they need, the app sends data on the scanned items to a self-checkout station. The customers stop by the payment station, swipe a credit card, and — voila — they're on their way. The test version doesn't allow customers to pay using their phones, which would let them skip the payment station, but mobile payment could be coming.

What's the point?
Walmart figures the new system will pay off for customers and the company alike. A trip to the big box theoretically becomes more enjoyable for shoppers if they can avoid long checkout lines. Meanwhile, the company says it can save $12 million on cashier salaries for every second it can shave off the typical checkout process.

Has anyone tried this before?
Yes. This is the fourth technology that large-scale retailers have seized on in their ongoing quest to simultaneously cut costs and make shopping easier for their customers, Paul Weitzel, managing partner at retail consulting firm Willard Bishop, tells Reuters. Supermarket chain Jewel-Osco, for example, experimented several years ago with giving customers hand-held scanners. "With smartphones and improved technology," Bishop says, "we're only going to see more of this."

Will this really change the way we shop?
Existing self-checkout lines become aggravating when the scanning contraption doesn't recognize an item and you have to wait "for a Walmart worker to intervene," says Christina DesMarais at PC World. If Scan & Go eliminates such snafus, it's a blessing, but it won't be revolutionary until you can pay with the app and avoid the checkout counter altogether. This "fledgling program" is just the beginning, says Jennifer Van Grove at VentureBeat. Walmart Labs, the retail giant's social and mobile product incubator, has been snapping up app makers and mobile payment startups, all in an effort to zip customers out the door faster. And not a moment too soon, says Jose Martinez at Complex. Those of us who love Walmart's low prices hate its "horrendous lines" at the checkout counter. If the company can save money and lose the bottleneck at the same time, it's "a match made in heaven."

Sources: Complex, PC World, Reuters, VentureBeat, Wall St. Journal

 

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