target cash register photo

If you’ve ever been frustrated while waiting in line to check out at Target, consider this – someday, you may be able to do all of your Target shopping without having to check out at all.

Today, that’s called “shoplifting”. But in the not-too-distant future, it could be just the way shopping is done.

Target this week announced that it will roll out RFID “smart label” technology to every one of its stores by next year. Radio Frequency Identification tags have been described as “bar codes on steroids”. They contain tiny embedded electronic chips that send out radio waves, which can be read by a handheld scanner, a payment station or even your phone.

In theory, then, the future Target shopping experience could look something like this: you fill up your cart, then wheel it past a scanner similar to the anti-shoplifting devices that sound an alarm if you leave the store without paying for something. That scanner will automatically read the RFID signals of everything in your cart, without you having to take out each individual item and scan a bar code. The system deducts digital coupons and charges whatever automatic payment method you have saved on your phone – all in the time it takes you to simply walk through the scanner. Bag up your purchases if you’d like, and you’re on your way.

You could also wave your phone near a product while shopping, to get information about it or check the price. And employees can use a handheld scanner to check inventory.

That last application of the technology is actually where Target plans to start. So while the widespread RFID rollout will mean cash register-less checkout will be technologically possible, don’t look for it just yet.

Instead, Target plans to first begin applying the technology to improve the accuracy of its inventory and prevent out-of-stocks. In situations like the recent Lilly Pulitzer launch, in which products were flying off the shelves and many frustrated shoppers ended up empty-handed, RFID tags could have provided store associates and customers with real-time updates on exactly which items, and how many, were available in which store.

The challenge in implementing easy checkouts, is that every single item in the store needs to have an RFID tag for such a system to work. Target says it’s working first with “key vendors” in categories like clothing and home decor, to apply RFID labels on their products. Putting the high-tech labels on everything from groceries to things in the Dollar Spot, could take a while longer. But the fact that Target is getting the ball rolling, applying the high-tech tags to millions of products across every one of its stores, is a good start.

Retailers have been experimenting with RFID for a while now, and they’ve long dreamed of using the technology for a “frictionless checkout”. But cost has been a concern, since embedding electronic chips on even the most inexpensive items in the store, can prove costly. And retailers and manufacturers would each prefer that the other pay for it.

But a major retailer embracing the technology and rolling it out across the country, even for a limited use, is a step in the right direction and could ultimately help bring down the costs required for a wider rollout. And Target is promising to “explore additional ways that RFID tags can enhance the shopping experience.”

So keep your cash, credit or debit card, paper coupons – and your patience – handy. Because Target isn’t eliminating the cash register and checkout line just yet. But next time you’re stuck in a long checkout line, to see a cashier who may give you a hard time about your coupons – have faith, that the future is on its way.

Photo by JeepersMedia

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