It’s 2013. Why are we still waiting in checkout lines?

December 3, 2013
(Brian Fung / The Washington Post)
(Brian Fung / The Washington Post)

The Black Friday crush happens only once a year? Tell that to the thousands of shoppers who pass through D.C.'s grocery stores every week. No matter what time of day, chances are Washington residents will spend more of their time waiting to leave than actually walking around the store.

On a recent trip to the Giant in Columbia Heights, getting to the front of the check-out line took 20 minutes on a Sunday afternoon.

"Looks like that stretches all the way back to Maryland," a passerby remarked before shaking his head and moving on in search of a more promising aisle.

Companies have shown a surge of interest lately in high-tech payment cards that either consolidate all your credit cards into one, or link a physical method of payment to an online account. But none of these fix the problem that's bedeviled retailers for years: How to get checkout lines moving more quickly — or to eliminate them altogether.

As a result, the task has mostly fallen to payment processors. For some time now, Square users have been able to pay for their coffee or drinks just by giving their names to the person manning the bar. Yet the system doesn't seem to have spread beyond those small, intimate transactions, and according to a Square spokesman, the company doesn't foresee any large-scale retail deployments of that technology.

There is a subtle math to checkout lines. Retailers have discovered that putting all shoppers into a single line and setting up multiple cashiers reduces the likelihood that any one problem customer will hold up everybody else. It's also possible, using an idea known as Little's law, to predict what the wait time in any given line might be.

To further reduce checkout times, some grocery stores — such as Giant and Stop-and-Shop — provide handheld bar code scanners that let you scan your items as you add them to your cart. Then, once you reach the checkout counter, you simply pay and leave. But while that certainly saves the people behind you from a long checkout experience, it still requires waiting behind all the other cretins who didn't use the handheld scanners.

What if we didn't have to wait for a cashier at all? More than half of Americans now own a smartphone. Entire appliances will soon become connected to the Internet. And yet we still haven't found a way to end the checkout line.

We're inching closer, to be sure. Earlier this fall, PayPal unveiled a device the size of a USB drive that can recognize shoppers' smartphones when they enter a store. Called Beacon, it's designed mainly to facilitate easy checkouts; paying will be a Square-like experience where the cashier can pull up a list of nearby devices, select the one that's tied to you and charge you accordingly without any cash or cards changing hands. Matt Gromada, PayPal's director of product management, envisions putting many of these sub-$100 devices within the same store — one at the deli counter, another at the pharmacy and so on.

"When a customer gets close to a Beacon device, you get a pop up on your phone and it gives you three options," says Gromada. "You can remain checked in forever at that retailer or merchant. You can be checked in once but asked to be prompted. Or you can opt out."

Depending on your settings for different retailers, you'll then be able to pay hands-free. (Incidentally, you'll also be exposing yourself to marketing from the store, and presumably from others, too, if the store has a spotty privacy policy.)

Beacon for now sounds like yet another solution for the act of checking out, rather than for the wait before you get there. But consider the full range of technology that's available to us now. We have portable scanners that can neutralize the delays caused by scanning dozens of items at the register. (In fact, we even have bar code scanner apps for our phones that could presumably eliminate the stand-alone devices provided by stores.) Meanwhile, we've got payment solutions that let us leave without scanning or swiping anything. How have we not managed to combine these yet and end the checkout line once and for all?

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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Brian Fung | December 3, 2013