So long, cash register; mobile devices ring up sales

A saleswoman at Barneys New York uses an

A saleswoman at Barneys New York uses an iPod Touch to help a customer make a purchase in the Manhattan store. Stores across the country are ditching cash registers for checkouts through smartphones and tablet computers. (Feb. 15, 2013) Photo Credit: AP

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Ka-ching! The cash register may be on its final sale.

Stores across the country are ditching the old-fashioned, clunky machines and having salespeople -- and even shoppers themselves -- ring up sales on smartphones and tablet computers.

Barneys New York, a luxury retailer, this year plans to use iPads or iPod Touch devices for credit and debit card purchases in seven of its nearly two dozen regular-price stores. Urban Outfitters, a teen clothing chain, ordered its last traditional register last fall and plans to go completely mobile one day. And Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, is testing a Scan & Go app that lets customers scan their items as they shop.

"The traditional cash register is heading toward obsolescence," said Danielle Vitale, chief operating officer of Barneys New York.

That the cash register is getting the boot is no surprise. The writing has been on the wall for a long time for the iconic machine, which was created in the late 1800s. The register was essential in nearly every retail location by 1915, but it now seems outdated in a world in which smartphones and tablets increasingly are replacing everything from books to ATMs to cameras.

Stores like smartphones and tablets because they take up less floor space than registers and free up cashiers to help customers instead of being tethered to one spot. They also are cheaper: For instance, Apple Inc.'s iPads with accessories such as credit card readers can cost a store $1,500, compared with $4,000 for a register. And Americans increasingly want the same speedy service in physical stores that they get from shopping online.

"Consumers want the retailer to bring the register to them," said Lori Schafer, executive adviser at SAS Institute Inc., which creates software for major retailers.

J.C. Penney, a midprice department-store chain, said the response by customers has been great since it started rolling out iPod Touch devices late last year in its 1,100 stores. The goal is to have one in the hands of every salesperson by May. The company said that about a quarter of purchases at its stores nationwide now come from an iPod Touch.

On a recent Thursday afternoon at a Penney store in Manhattan, Debbie Guastella, 55, of Huntington, marveled after a saleswoman rang up three shirts she was buying on an iPod Touch.

"I think it's great," Guastella said. "The faster the better."

Not every retailer is quick to ditch registers, though. After all, there are still logistics to figure out. For instance, no retailer yet is accepting cash payments on mobile devices. But if they start to do so, where will they put the cash that would normally go into a register?

For its part, Wal-Mart is putting checkout in the hands of the shoppers themselves.

The retailer is testing its Scan & Go app, which can be used on Apple devices such as iPads, in some 200 of its more than 4,000 stores nationwide.

The app, aimed at reducing long checkout lines, requires that shoppers pay at self-checkout areas. So as it tests the app, Wal-Mart also is expanding the number of self-checkout areas in its stores.

"Our goal is to give choices to all of our customers however they want to shop," said Gibu Thomas, senior vice president of mobile and digital initiatives at Wal-Mart's global e-commerce division.

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