February 20, 2013, 4:24 PM

Wal-Mart expands self-checkout in stores via its iPhone app

The merchant now is testing the technology in 40 Denver area stores.

Bill Siwicki

Managing Editor, Mobile Commerce

Lead Photo

The retailer's iPhone app generates a QR code, like the one above, that a consumer scans at a self-checkout terminal to complete a transaction.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has its sights set on the smartphone-wielding shopper, this week expanding use of the “Scan & Go” feature for its iPhone app to 40 stores in the Denver area. It has been testing the mobile commerce technology in stores in Northwest Arkansas, Atlanta, San Jose, CA, and Portland, OR, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman tells Internet Retailer.

Scan & Go enables a shopper to scan the bar codes on products as she picks the products off shelves and puts them into her shopping cart. The app creates a list of all products scanned. When the shopper has completed shopping, she presses the Done Shopping button and the app generates a custom QR code. The self-checkout terminals scan the QR code on the smartphone, tally the list, and ask the shopper to select a payment option to complete the transaction at the terminal.

Wal-Mart Stores, No. 4 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide, is putting more money into self-checkout overall. In October 2012, Wal-Mart announced that checkout terminal vendor NCR would install 10,000 self-checkout terminals in more than 1,200 Wal-Mart locations in the U.S. by the end of 2013. Some of the devices being installed are new additions and some will replace current equipment, the spokeswoman says.

Wal-Mart declined to reveal what it cost to develop the Scan & Go app feature and what it costs to implement a self-checkout terminal.

The retail giant faces some challenges in implementing a mobile self-service checkout system, says Nikki Baird, a managing partner at Retail Systems Research LLC.

"Wal-Mart must get the right hardware format and provide a service with the scan that consumers perceive as valuable," Baird says. "With the hardware, it has seemed like moving to consumers' own devices is a natural evolution. As for the scan itself, it needs to save consumers time or money. If the scans are slow or the QR code is difficult to read or there are questions about the accuracy of scans or pricing, then it may end up being too much of a hassle for consumers to adopt."

Making consumers aware of self-service checkout programs also presents a challenge, Baird says.

"Retailers may underestimate both the signage and in-store training required to support this kind of effort," she says. "If Wal-Mart can get past these challenges, it will have an opportunity to both reach shoppers at the shelf to influence sales and improve insights into how consumers navigate its stores. And consumers will either have a more convenient shopping experience or an opportunity to save money on the products they buy, or both."

Whether the smartphone is facilitating mobile self-checkout or being used to shop the chain retailer’s m-commerce site or apps, the mobile device seems to be playing an increasingly important role at Wal-Mart.

“With more than half of our customers in the U.S. owning a smartphone, we’re providing services like mobile self-checkout to meet their needs,” the spokeswoman says. “Our multiple checkout options give us a unique advantage to provide our customers with the quick, easy and convenient checkout experience they tell us they want.”

Wal-Mart has created a research group in Silicon Valley called @WalmartLabs tasked with developing ways to leverage social media and mobile devices to make shopping at Wal-Mart more appealing. Among the ideas company executives have discussed is posting signs in stores to let shoppers use their smartphones to contact store personnel for help and creating an in-store social network that would let consumers in a store communicate with each other via their mobile handsets.

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