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Using coupons at a self-checkout has always been a less-than-optimal experience. Either the store trusts you to scan your own coupons, putting itself at risk for fraud, or you have to wait while an attendant scrutinizes your every coupon, defeating the purpose of a speedy, do-it-yourself checkout.

Now, self-checkout pioneer NCR has come up with a system that skips the self-checkout lane and eliminates the need to scan bar codes, by letting you use your phone to identify items, pay for your purchases – and apply your own paper coupons without an attendant’s assistance.

What could possibly go wrong?

NCR’s proposal is described in a newly-published patent application entitled “Methods and a System for Self-Checkout Processing.” It’s like self-checkout without the machine, connecting a phone-based scan-and-go type of checkout system to a central server, so your purchases and coupons can be validated in real time – with the added bonus of not having to scan any product bar codes.

Several stores offer some kind of scan-and-go system, where you use your phone or a store-provided device to scan your own items as you shop. But NCR says there are two problems with that – “consumers sometimes struggle with locating bar codes on the items,” and “the checkout still requires checkout through a self-service terminal within the store before leaving.” Even after scanning your own items in the aisles, you typically have to visit an in-store terminal to finalize your transaction. And if you have coupons, you or an attendant will have to stand there scanning them one by one.

Not in NCR’s system.

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Similar to the others, NCR would have you use your phone or a store-provided device to scan items as you add them to your cart, so you don’t have to scan them at a self-checkout. But it would use an “artificial intelligence-trained item identifier” so you won’t have to look for bar codes to scan. Instead, you just hold the item up to your phone as you place it into your shopping cart, and the system will recognize the product, the size and the price and add it to your virtual cart.

For random-weight items like meat, the system would be able to “see” the price printed on the package. And for produce, you’d put the item on a scale, hold up your phone and the system would recognize the item, see the weight displayed on the scale and calculate the price.

When you’re done shopping and ready to pay – don’t forget those coupons! NCR’s system would allow you to “use the self-checkout manager’s user-facing interface and integrated camera to scan or capture images of printed media coupons.” Then you pay, either with a payment method saved to your account or by holding a payment card up to your phone. And then you’re done – no need to stop at a physical payment terminal to finalize your transaction.

All of this is made possible by the fact that NCR’s system connects wirelessly to the store’s point-of-sale system, which effectively makes scanning your own items the same as scanning them at a self-checkout terminal. So any invalid coupon that wouldn’t be accepted when scanned at a standard checkout terminal, won’t be accepted when you hold it up to your phone, either.

But what happens to your paper coupons after you scan them yourself? NCR’s patent application leaves out this particular detail. Do you hand your wad of coupons to an attendant as you breeze out the door, or does the attendant have to sort through your coupons one by one, matching them to the items you purchased, defeating the whole idea of being able to scan them yourself?

It’s another example of how self-checkout is convenient and workable in theory – but coupons always seem to gum up the works. Coupon fraudsters tend to take advantage of stores that trust you to scan your own coupons and deposit them into a slot at a self-checkout station. And honest couponers who’d like to be trusted with the “self” part of self-checkout, can get frustrated having to wait for an attendant to go through their coupons. For all of its potential benefits, NCR’s system doesn’t seem to solve this dilemma.

But at least it’s trying to improve how we shop. Most people are “not enamored with the grocery shopping experience, believing it to be a necessary task that just wastes their time but cannot be avoided,” NCR’s patent application reads. If NCR’s system makes grocery shopping just a little more tolerable, it might be worth it. And if it can finally, somehow, solve the problem of how to apply your own coupons without human intervention – all the better.

Image source: Simon Shek

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