If you can’t stand waiting in checkout lines, unloading everything in your shopping cart onto a belt and standing there as the cashier rings up your purchases and scrutinizes your coupons, there may be a better way. What if you could just grab what you need off your supermarket’s shelves and walk out of the store, without stopping to check out at all?

That’s what tech company NCR hopes to accomplish with its “Whole Store Scanner,” an invention that it claims will “revolutionize the checkout process for retailers and consumers.”

The system, described in a newly-published U.S. patent application, would use dozens of cameras strategically placed throughout a store. Those cameras would watch you, and your basket or shopping cart, to determine what you put inside. The system would keep a running total of the price of your items, then automatically charge it to a mobile payment app on your phone when you’re done shopping.

“The process can be as simple as placing items in a cart, picking up an electronic or paper receipt, and leaving the store,” the application reads.

The Whole Store Scanner is the latest proposed method of doing away with traditional checkouts. Some retailers have tried systems in which you scan your own items as you shop, using your phone or a hand-held device. Others are experimenting with “tunnel scanners” that use image recognition to scan many items at once, more swiftly than the current bar code scanning systems. And still others are believers in radio frequency identification tags attached to each item, which are then scanned automatically as you walk out of the store.

But NCR’s idea is to use simple video cameras, and lots of them. A camera at the front of the store would first capture your image and link that image with an empty basket or shopping cart. Then cameras throughout the store will watch what products you pick up, what you put inside your cart, what you put back – and more. “The system knows where the customer is at the start, when the customer is holding or manipulating an item, which container is theirs, where the container is, when the container contains items, when the contents of the container change, and when the contents of a shelf change,” the system’s description reads.


Pretty creepy cool stuff, huh?

Adding to the creepy/cool factor, the system can collect analytics for your store to ponder, such as how long you stopped to view a product, what parts of the store you frequent, or what products you picked up but put back on the shelf.

It can also send you “relevant real-time offers” based on your location or behavior in the store. For example, NCR explains, “if a customer dwells at a display of drinks or buys a sequence of items suited to a party or tailgating, coupons for complementary items such as chips, nuts or the like may be transmitted.” If you grab a full-priced item, it can notify you of an alternate product that’s on sale.

Unfortunately, less high-tech shopping methods such as paper coupons, non-mobile payments and grocery bags can impede the efficiency of the Whole Store Scanner. Sure, you can fill up your cart without having to stop to scan its contents at a traditional checkout. But you still have to pay – and if you don’t have a mobile payment app on your phone, you’ll need to stop to swipe a credit or debit card, or hand over some cash to a cashier. If you have paper coupons, you’ll need to have those scanned. And since the system relies on cameras that need to see what’s in your cart, you can’t bag as you go – you’ll still have to stop at a “bagging zone” to take care of that before you depart.

Other potential limitations of the system are that you can’t easily check the accuracy of the prices you’re charged. If you don’t have the opportunity to keep an eye on each item as it’s scanned, you’re at the mercy of the system and what it automatically charges your account. And what if you go shopping with a spouse, another family member or a friend? If you share cart-pushing duty, the system could get confused as to which shopper it’s supposed to be watching, and charging.

But the Whole Store Scanner is only a proposal, and not reality yet, so there’s time to work out the kinks. Even so, it would appear that the only foolproof way to buy your groceries without having to engage with a cashier or stop at a bagging zone, would be to buy all of your groceries online. And your brick-and-mortar grocery store doesn’t really want to see you do that. So imperfect as it may be, if the Whole Store Scanner can make shopping in an actual, physical store more convenient – it’s worth a shot.

Image source: Flickr/Chris Kennedy

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