• 05.08.13

Can Apps, Body-Heat-Detecting Cameras, And Other New Tech Save Customer Service?

Innovations being tested by Walmart and McDonald’s, among others, could go a long way toward fixing the shopping experience, starting at that backed-up checkout line.

Can Apps, Body-Heat-Detecting Cameras, And Other New Tech Save Customer Service?

Nothing says “We don’t care about customer service” like long lines at a checkout. At the one point when you think most retailers would be absolutely ecstatic to take your money, far too many still seem more than comfortable forcing customers to either use self-checkouts or waste time waiting around even though they have rows upon rows of empty cash registers that seem to spend most of their time collecting dust.


Sound familiar?

Hopefully, all that’s about to change. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, retailers such as Kroger’s, Walmart, and McDonald’s are hoping new technologies will help them wage a war on long lines at the checkout. Does it sound too good to be true? I know I’ll believe it when I see it. The only way to actually fix the problem is to understand how and why customers (and customer service) started to take a back seat.

The Cost of Customer Service

Not that long ago, customer service was seen as a huge value add–something that could immediately differentiate your business from all of your other competitors. However, over time increasing competition forced businesses to look for more and more ways to get “lean.” In other words, if a customer wasn’t willing to pay for something, there was a good chance that something would be eliminated.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a better example than self-checkouts. Big box retailers were actually able to convince us to ring ourselves out and bag up our own purchases so they could save money on payroll. That had to be one of the most persuasive marketing jobs of all time–shoppers take on all of the work, retailers save a considerable amount of money, and those savings may or may not ever make their way back to the customers.

After years and years of using cost-cutting to justify poor customer service, it looks like big box retailers finally might be starting to get it.

Looking to Next Generation Technology


Infrared cameras, “Scan & Go” iPhone apps, and dual point ordering systems are just some of the many ideas retailers are hoping will help to reduce wait times, the number of frustrated customers, and do so without taking on additional costs typically associated with staffing and head counts.

Although some of the solutions still sound a little clunky (such as Walmart’s scan as you go app that requires you to scan each item with your smartphone before you put it in your buggy), others such as the idea of Kroger’s using infrared cameras to detect body heat and determine the number of registers that need to be open actually seem like they could offer a lot of promise.

In other words, the same “technology” that helped create the “joy” that is self-checkouts might finally have a chance to redeem itself. At least I know that’s what I’m going to tell myself the next time I’m stuck in a long line waiting to finalize my purchase.

[Image: Flickr user Ryan Somma]

About the author

Shawn Graham partners with small businesses to create, implement, and manage performance-driven marketing strategies. His knowledge base includes media relations, business development, customer engagement, web marketing, and strategic planning.