Supermarket shake-up as the bell tolls for tills

No queues, no cashiers. Clayton Hirst reports on the new machines that promise to revolutionise retail by letting customers pay as they go

It's 120 years since the patent of the first "incorruptible cashier machine" was bought by the National Cash Register Company for $6,500 (about £1,600 in those days). Yet still the basic format of supermarkets around the world remains unchanged. While the produce for sale may be wildly different, customers still have to queue and pay for their goods in the same way they did over a century ago.

But that is about to change.

Appearing in supermarkets across the UK are self-checkout systems that allow customers to scan and pay for goods without the need for a cashier, while ensuring that shoppers don't forget any items. The systems are only at a trial stage, but the early signs are that the likes of J Sainsbury, Tesco, Marks & Spencer and Somerfield are delighted with the results. "We may be on the verge of widespread rollout in the UK," says Jonathan Reynolds, a fellow in retail marketing at Oxford University.

According to research consultancy IHL, $128bn (£70bn) worth of worldwide sales were made though self-checkout systems in 2003. In four more years, IHL estimates, the figure will have risen to $1,300bn. Experts believe the UK market will grow at a similar rate.

Technology companies, starved by the four-year sales drought after the dot- com crash, are squaring up for what should be a fierce battle for supremacy in the self-checkout market. NCR, the grandfather of retail hardware which acquired the original cash register patent, has established an early lead here. Geoff Evison, its European director of self-checkout, claims the company has a 75 per cent share of the UK market. NCR will install 80 machines this year and hopes to double that number in 2005, he says.

But snapping at NCR's heels are Fujitsu, IBM and Wincor, a smaller US technology company. The potential for huge sales has not been lost on them. "The UK market is worth £500m based on [equipment] sales to the supermarkets." says Paul Rosen, a business analyst at Fujitsu. "I have one customer that is looking to develop a total self-checkout store in the UK," he adds.

While the up-front costs of ripping out old tills and installing self-service machines may be high, retailers have been quick to spot the benefits.

The biggest is labour. Just one employee can supervise the operation of four self-checkout machines - making sure, for example, that there are no technical faults and that minors are not buying alcohol or cigarettes.

So costs will be saved by mass redundancies? Not so, say the retailers. "The checkout people will be re-deployed on to the shop floor to make sure the shelves are replenished at all times," says a spokesman for Sainsbury's.

Cynics will argue that while staff may not lose their jobs, the checkout machines will lead to a recruitment freeze. But so far, the unions are relaxed about the introduction of the new systems. "We have received no complaints from our members," says a spokesman for shopworkers' union Usdaw.

Retailers have other motives for wanting to phase out the traditional tills.

For a start, self-checkout systems can be dotted around the shop floor, offering retailers the opportunity to experiment with new store formats. Early research has also shown that self-checkout appeals to elusive sections of the shopping population. Mr Reynolds at Oxford University says: "The technology seems to encourage young males to shop. They like to use it to show off in front of their girlfriends."

Older customers like the technology too, notes Sainsbury's. A spokesman for the supermarket says: "On traditional checkouts, the cashier will scan the items though quickly. With self-checkout, older people are able to read each price as they scan the items at their own pace."

The biggest challenge is to stop customers from leaving without paying. Most self-checkout systems require shoppers to weigh their baskets before they start scanning. The database holds weights as well as prices, so as each item's bar code is read, the computer can add that value to a running total. If the basket weighed more than the sum of the items scanned, something is wrong.

While retailers are pleased with the results of the trials, many believe that the machines are only suitable for smaller, "express" stores. Retailers are waiting for the arrival of the next generation of self-checkout systems before taking the concept mass-market.

The next systems to arrive will allow customers to pile their goods on a conveyor belt to be scanned by a series of barcode readers. This technology is around a year away from being commercially available and retailers are keeping a close eye on developments.

Tesco declined to comment, but it is understood that the UK's largest and most profitable retailer has asked NCR, IBM, Fujitsu and Wincor for demonstrations of their systems.

Anther technology that could find its way on to the shop floor is fingerprint-recognition, more commonly associated with sophisticated anti-terrorist security systems. Retailers believe that a database of their customers' prints matched to their credit card details will offer the potential for quick and secure transactions at the touch of a finger. The Oxford, Swindon and Gloucester Co-op, one of the retailer's regional networks, is already testing a system developed by San Francisco technology firm Pay By Touch and Fujitsu.

Looking further into the future, hi-tech companies are working on a new technology called RFID (radio frequency identification) which would allow high-speed self-checkout. Products would carry a special chip and the price of a shopping basket could be calculated as the customer walked though a freestanding scanner.

Earlier this summer, IBM started work with Metro, a German retailer, on the rollout of RFID chips through its supply chain. Industry insiders believe, however, that it will be five to 10 years before RFID self-checkout tills are common in supermarkets.