It's been a slow start for self-service checkout systems, which in the past two years have dribbled slowly and sporadically into scattered supermarkets. But as a tight labor market for cashiers intersects with better technology and consumer support for do-it-yourself purchasing, suppliers and analysts are expecting a surge in interest from a wide variety of retailers.
Wal-Mart, Kmart, and Target all acknowledge they're testing the concept of letting customers scan the merchandise they want to buy and check themselves out. Suppliers say there has been interest from all kinds of stores that are configured with checkout counters at the front--from warehouse stores to drug stores to home-improvement centers.
The year already is off to a good start at market leader Optimal Robotics Corp., which has 875 units on order so far in 2001, up from 580 during 2000. Among its customers, it said in an analyst call, is a major home-improvement center.
"The expansion we've been looking for is starting to happen," says Rick Weinhart, an analyst at the investment firm of Gerard Klauer Mattison. "This kind of productivity solution is good in a down economy, and retailers see it as a way to enhance customer service. This could be a break-through year for them. They're starting to get that momentum where one store has it, and others start to think they're at a disadvantage if they don't. The more people roll it out, the more it gets bumped up in the IT priority lists of their competitors."
Giving the market another nudge is the addition of fingerprint verification, which both Optimal and No. 2 player NCR Corp. have rolled out. Customers can register their credit- or debit-card numbers and fingerprints, then just scan their purchases and touch the screen to check out.