Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting


The Display Continuum

It Won’t be Long Now…June 2004

Last week, I went to pick up a few plumbing repair items at our local Home Depot store. As I approached the checkout counter area, I noticed that there was only one cashier open at this relatively slow time of day. Nevertheless, there were at least eight people waiting in line ahead of me to pay. Right next to this line of increasingly impatient customers was the new self-checkout area. One person was valiantly trying to use this new "faster and more convenient" method of completing the transaction. However, the items would not register properly and the automated system told him that he could not remove his bag until some additional step was completed. This person looked uncomfortable and embarrassed by the time a clerk finally came over to help.

Unfortunately, while standing in line and watching all of this take place I did not have the satisfaction of even a twinge of smugness or comfort – for I know that my day is also coming, and very soon. We are all about to suffer through such training experiences, as the frustrated gentleman I was observing, on our way to becoming checkout clerks -- whether we like it or not. The trend is clear.

It all started some years ago with self-service gas pumps. (Should you wish to remember what those "good old days were like" you can still have this quaint experience in the state of Oregon where the law does not allow you to pump your own gas.) I’m not sure exactly what came next, but it may have been ATM machines followed more recently by airlines with computer-generated boarding passes.

Each new application has been more complicated than the last. There are not many interesting choices when buying gas. ATM machines can take care of some banking needs, but not all. The airlines needed the help of the Internet to make the ticket buying and subsequent check-in processes work with reasonable convenience.

In earlier and less sophisticated times, when real people were still available to help us with our transactions, the benefit at the gas pump was that the person filling the tank also cleaned your windows as a complimentary service. And in times even longer ago, they also checked the oil. Can you remember back that far? However, after those services disappeared there was not much benefit to having someone else fill the gas tank for us. We can do that just about as well and probably faster since we don’t have to wait for someone else to complete their transaction. With ATM machines there is the advantage that these machines are accessible 24 hours each and every day. They are there and waiting to fulfill our every wish. Just punch the right buttons and money comes spilling out – as if it really did grow on trees.

But what are the advantages of an automated checkout at a Home Depot or a grocery store? Clearly the store should be gaining something by reducing labor costs. But what’s in it for us? Will this necessarily lead to lower prices? Of course if the store already does not have enough clerks and the lines are too long, then it’s an obvious benefit to try to complete the transaction as quickly as possible. But should that be the accepted way to run a business? Reducing service to an unacceptably low level and then introducing an automated system to bring it back up to where it used to be does not seem like a genuine improvement -- especially since in this process the labor costs have been shifted onto the customer. Perhaps this is right in line with stores putting stickers on every fruit and vegetable because some clerks can no longer distinguish between apples, oranges, and apricots.

Given this situation with an unclear benefit, I have decided to adopt a strategy of resisting these changes for as long as possible. I will continue to try to use ticket agents at airline counters and checkout personnel at stores until I have no other option. But, why am I being so obstinate and unwilling to join the latest technology that the 21st century has to offer? I’m glad you asked.

It is because I see this as a very clumsy and transitory approach to something that is going to be much better and that is literally just around the corner. I believe that the automated checkout counters based on the current scanner technology will in a few short years be replaced by a much more convenient method based on RFID tag technology. We are almost there. The security tags used in many products can easily be changed to incorporate additional information. The price stickers placed on other products can just as easily be made "active". The only minor problem will be with items such as fruits and vegetables. The days of picking and choosing the nicest looking ones may be coming to an end. To make the RFID tag approach work effectively, we will need to change the way some of these products are packaged. The large discount stores such as Costco have already made this conversion by doing bulk packaging and eliminating the pick-your-own approach.

So, are you ready for the shopping experience of a few years from now? It will be so elegantly simple. Just select the items you want. Take them to the checkout area. Insert your credit card and push "total". That is all there will be to it. Every item in your shopping cart will have been recognized and instantly tabulated. The list with a detailed description of every item will be on the flat panel screen in front of you and printed out for your records. The total time for the transaction, regardless of the number of items purchased, will have taken no more than one minute. You will even be able to put the items into "paper or plastic" as you shop. It is also likely that your shopping cart will have a display that shows a running total of what you have selected.

Now, that’s a process that I can learn and understand. And it’s in fact what we already do when we are shopping on-line. We seem to be coming full circle. On-line stores learned from the brick-and-mortar establishments, and now those businesses are beginning to learn the best of the on-line methods. Frankly, I like the thought that both will survive and thrive. Browsing in a "real" store is an experience I’m not ready to give up. The convenience of simply "walking out" of the store with our purchases will be a bit scary the first few times we do it, but after that, the world of commerce will never again be the same.

For those of us in the display community this will present major new market opportunities. In effect, we will be replacing the "human touch" with an electronic display – maybe one with an "electronic touch".

For comments on this topic and others, you can reach me -- without the challenges of having to "check-out" -- simply by sending an e-mail to, by phone at 425-898-9117, or by fax at 425-898-1727.