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The Vanishing Checkout Lane: Will Today’s Point of Sale Satisfy Tomorrow’s Retail Customers?

The retail point of sale is fundamentally changing. It is moving from traditional checkout lines to wherever the customer may be: shopping on the Internet, walking a store’s aisles, traveling or lounging on the beach. Are you prepared for what this means to capturing and retaining customers?

Not so many years ago, returning a rental car was often an exercise in anxiety and frustration. Typically, you would be racing to the airport to catch your flight and probably cutting your schedule a little too closely. You’d drop off the car, gather up your possessions and drag them to the rental-return counter with paperwork in hand. You might stand in a slow line serviced by an attendant casually checking in the line of others returning their cars. If you forgot to write your mileage or fuel on the paperwork, you would dash back to the car, write down that information and then sprint back to the car-return counter. While completing the paperwork and processing your credit card, the counter attendant might try to engage you in idle chitchat. Meanwhile you were rapidly losing patience.

Those were the days.

Now, of course, returning a car is much simpler. You pull into the lot. An attendant walks over to you, scans a bar code on the car and checks the mileage. The attendant asks if you want to keep the charge on your card. He hands you the receipt, and you’re done, almost before you’ve finished taking your luggage out of the trunk.

This new process seems so natural that it’s easy to forget those not-so-good old days. Today’s travelers have quickly grown to expect this level of service and even take it for granted.

From the car rental company’s point of view, changing the way it checked in a rental return and completed a sale was inspired by one simple idea: rather than bringing the customer to the point of sale (POS), let’s take the POS to the customer. New wireless technology made this possible and the results were dramatic:

  • A major improvement in customer satisfaction
  • Significantly faster transaction processing
  • Fewer attendants needed to check in the same volume of returns
  • Reduced need for a staffed return counter and lobby area
  • A different kind of customer interaction; rather than a pressured clerk facing an anxious customer, often in front of an audience of other anxious customers, you have a quick, efficient, satisfying, one-on-one transaction

We hardly think about returning a rental car today. We just grab the receipt and run, and that could be all there is to say about how the POS changed in the car rental business. But that’s not the end of this story. It is, in fact, the beginning of a much bigger story, one that is unfolding right now and will have a profound impact on the way many kinds of retailers transact sales and interact with their customers.

Today’s emerging POS technology will make many things possible, but there are two essential points to keep in mind:

  • What do customers really want when they stand in the checkout line?
  • What does this mean to the way retailers manage their businesses and interact with their customers?