"Probably no job in the supermarket affects the store's success more than that of the checker." So opined a 1965 training film called The Front Line, which documented a pre-barcode world where a checker's smile and friendliness were key, because the checker "is the shopper's last, and often only, personal contact with the store."
But UPC codes and more-advanced cash registers have made efficiency, not friendliness, the vanguard in the checkout aisle. Self-checkout is currently available in about 20% of supermarkets. And Stop & Shop, a grocery chain with about 230 outlets serving New England, is testing the Shopping Buddy, a cart-mounted gizmo that at least splits the work with us, in about 20 stores. Shoppers scan items—and bag them—as they shop. The Shopping Buddy, using infrared, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth, can also do such things as transmit an order to the deli department and then tell you when it's ready for pickup. "In the future, it may help you find recipe items and then email the recipe to your house," says Stop & Shop spokesman Robert Keane. The Shopping Buddy is a peek at the day when RFID tags on each grocery item would let an entire cart be scanned in one pass. This could happen now, but "you have to use a more expensive [RFID] tag if there's metal or moisture involved, which means most of what's in a supermarket," says Greg Buzek, president of IHL Consulting Group, a retail technology expert. Look for it in 8 to 10 years.
Scanning grocery items may still take time no matter who's doing it, but methods to pay more quickly continue to proliferate. More than 3 million consumers have already signed up with Pay By Touch, whose fingerprint-driven payment and checkcashing systems are now in about 2,200 stores. If you don't want to pay with your finger, you'll be able to use something that's almost as closely attached to you: your cell phone. "Ten years from now, your phone will be your wallet," says Bob Wesley, CEO of MobileLime, a startup trying to create this future.
In 2016, then, will we even remember the smiling cashiers of The Front Line? Probably not, but that doesn't mean we'll be buying meat and soda in a vapid shoppingscape. As it turns out, the human touch isn't being eliminated—it's just being relocated. Supermarkets have started to reinvent themselves by offering more personal service as we shop. That onetime cashier is now needed in the babysitting area or to help run a nutritional seminar. The Front Line got one thing right: A smile and a good attitude will always be cutting edge.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.