Cutting queues hits top of retail agenda

In an effort to reduce the time customers have to wait to pay for goods, retailers are turning to hand-held technology.

There’s a story that does the rounds in retail about a well-known department store, which, during its annual sale, adds to the number of its pay-points with portable tills, often only accepting cash, to cut the queues. So, when a young man with the right ID tags arrived at the start of a sale-day and set up a cash-only till in a busy department, he was greeted with relief by other staff. After a full day’s work, he cashed up, packed away his till and walked out of the store – neither he, nor the cash he’d taken, was ever seen again.

The con worked because the store was desperate to cut queues. Cutting queues, though not in this unconventional way, is one of the issues at the top of the retail agenda. Cut queues and you’ll make customers happier. You’ll also reduce the number who get frustrated and walk out without buying anything.

Richard Hyman, chairman of retail research consultancy Verdict Research, says: “In developed economies, retail is moving from being needs-driven to being wants-driven, and retailers are competing for the consumer’s money with other sectors, particularly leisure. Customer service is something all retailers need to improve if they are to compete effectively – and that includes queuing.”

There are two main solutions to the queue conundrum: one is staff-based (such as Tesco’s ‘One in Front’ policy, where idle tills are opened as soon as there are more than two people in a queue); the other relies on technology. The six-month-old clothing chain Uniqlo is to trial hand-held Electronic Point of Sale (EPOS) terminals, allowing store managers to set up pay-points instantly when existing tills become congested (MW last week).

Simon Thomas, IT director at Fast Retailing UK, which owns Uniqlo, says the pilot will start in June. “If successful, we’ll roll it out to all our stores. The technology has finally matured to the point where it’s affordable and usable. Also, we’re lucky because we’re a new company – we don’t have any legacy computer systems, so we don’t have to change anything we’ve already got.”

Other retailers have begun to experiment with hand-held systems, although none have gone as far as using them as alternative tills. Shoe store Faith arms its assistants with hand-held devices to enable them to check the availability of stock instantly. Last Christmas, WH Smith introduced “Queue Busters”, a team of staff that used hand-held devices to scan a basket’s contents and print out a ticket with the total cost expressed as a barcode, so when the shopper reached the till, only one barcode had to be read. A fast-food chain has been looking at taking orders and payment from customers in the queue, so the food is ready when they get to the till point. And, of course, everyone has been trying to sell online – with little real success so far.

Top Shop asked specialist retail architecture and design company Carte Blanche to investigate hand-held systems during the redesign of the retailer’s 80,000 sq ft flagship outlet at Oxford Circus.

Su Davies, a partner at Carte Blanche, says: “Top Shop wanted to allow customers to approach staff and pay for things, but the technology wasn’t really there at the time and there were operational concerns, such as security.”

Some supermarkets have introduced self-scanning, where the shoppers use a hand-held terminal to scan barcodes as they do their shopping. These, however, have yet to take off, due mainly to consumer reluctance it seems. Although there are other issues, including whether consumers can be trusted to scan everything.

But self-scanning still requires till points. With hand-held EPOS systems, it is possible to cut the number of fixed tills – or even do away with them altogether – conjuring up new vistas for store design.

As Davies says: “A future without enormous ugly cash-and-wrap desks? Hallelujah! You could give over large areas of expensive floorspace to more merchandise or better customer service.”

It’s not just a revolution for traditional bricks-and-mortar based retailers, however. Thyron is a company that makes a range of hand-held devices for retailers and chief executive Peter Gee says many of his clients are street traders or mobile services – carpet cleaners, for example – which visit their customers in their homes or offices. “We’ve found our early adopters have been plumbers and the like. More and more transactions done in the home are for more than the amount of cash people have in their wallets, so it makes sense for them to use mobile terminals,” he says.

The real Holy Grail for retailers, however, is automated scanning, where a trolley’s contents are totted up by the till without taking them out. This would require all items to have radio tags on them, which most experts say is many years off – good news for employees, as radio tagging would provide retailers with the opportunity to slash staff numbers. A report by the German-based research company Eurohandels Institut suggested retailers across Europe could save e20bn (£12.25bn) a year in staff costs – but 400 billion tags would be needed at a minimum cost of 25c (15p) each.

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