"We don't want anyone to have to wait in line," says Matt Carey, Home Depot's CIO. After all, the $70 billion big-box retailer doesn't ship plywood. Or cement. An island in a sea of e-commerce, Home Depot remains largely an in-store experience. That's why it wants to provide a good one, especially at the register.
To keep egress speedy, the company has been aggressively outfitting its 2,253 stores with a quartet of checkout options. "If you don't give customers choices," says the National Retail Federation's Richard Mader, one of two retail technology analysts Fast Company asked to weigh in, "they'll go someplace that does." Here's how Home Depot aims to retain.
1. PLASTIC ON THE FLY
Every Home Depot associate is armed with a "First phone," a combo phone/walkie-talkie/scanner. Should the situation call for it—such as with remote garden centers, Christmas-tree lots, or during busy weekends—the unit can be outfitted with a card reader and receipt printer so it can accept credit and debit payments. Roughly 34,000 First devices will be in circulation.
MADER: "Both retailer and consumer feedback on mobile [checkout] has been outstanding. You'll always need some checkout terminals in case of Wi-Fi outages, but retailers are quickly moving in this direction."
2. SCAN NOW, PAY LATER
Not every First phone will be equipped for mobile checkout, but that doesn't mean they can't still contribute. When lines are long, associates can scan all the items in shoppers' carts and hand them a card containing their purchase. All that remains is giving the card to a cashier and settling up.
MADER: "This is an old technique, but an effective middle ground between traditional checkouts and mobile ones—and a good way to quickly process people using cash."
GREG BUZEK, IHL GROUP: "It's a good system to have when the store is busy, especially since any associate will be able to tally up a cart."
3. LEAVE YOUR WALLET IN THE CLOUD
In January, Home Depot became the first partner for PayPal's foray into the brick-and-mortar world. Payment terminals at registers now offer a PayPal Wallet button, which enables consumers to pay with any funding source that's linked to their PayPal account (see sidebar).
MADER: "Two to three years ago, nobody talked about mobile payments. Now Google and PayPal are leading the charge. The fees collected by credit-card companies amounted to $40 billion last year. That created a market for cheaper alternatives. Retailers want to minimize those fees."
4. SEE YOURSELF OUT
Home Depot was one of the first major retailers to introduce self-checkout, back in 2003. Until 2010, neither hardware nor software had been updated since. "We got new units that process change much faster, and software that's more intuitive," says Carey. "The combination has made self-checkout as much as 30% faster."
BUZEK: "Self-checkout is no longer sexy, but deployment of units continues to grow at 10% a year. They get bad press for allegedly taking jobs, but Home Depot reassigns displaced cashiers to work in aisles, where they can help customers—and upsell products."
A version of this article appeared in the May 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.