Emerging Technology

Instant Checkout: Transforming Customer Experience with Shell

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Self-checkouts are supposed to save us time, but crumpled barcodes in unpredictable packaging locations requiring individual scanning, and the dreaded ‘unexpected item in the bagging area’ warning message can quickly turn a trip to the shop into an extreme test of one’s patience. The longer and more arduous the process to check out, the more likely it is the shopper will abandon the basket, a worst-case scenario for the retailer.

Fortunately for shoppers and retailers alike, IBM iX has partnered with a series of specialist companies to develop a breakthrough invention for ‘instant checkout and connected store’ that is set to revolutionize shopping. The first step is to give customers the fastest and most secure way to check out. The long-term vision, however, is to transform the store and its supply chain, reduce waste globally, and empower more ethical consumerism worldwide.


Phase 1: Fastest, easiest, most secure way to check out in stores

To refine the customer experience and technology, the program was trialed over six weeks at a Shell store in the UK with roughly 140 customers.

Customers were universally delighted by the instant checkout’s ease of use and ultra fast speeds. It takes only five seconds for the instant checkout to complete a transaction for any number of items – unlike traditional self-checkouts and cashier checkouts that take longer the more items you buy, due to the need for scanning individual barcodes. When limited to only 10 items, the difference in speed is still staggering with the instant checkout generally performing 15 times faster than a self-checkout, and seven times faster than a cashier.

IBM iX has partnered with a series of specialist companies to develop a breakthrough invention for ‘instant checkout and connected store’ that is set to revolutionize shopping.

Beyond the instant checkout’s speed and ease of use though, consumers in the Shell trial also greatly valued the extra security provided by the invention. This is because it utilizes a new patent-pending payment process to facilitate payments via a BlueTooth enabled reader. The reader, unlike traditional card and NFC readers, doesn’t collect or send any customer or payment data. Instead, it sends a unique code to the customer’s app to be matched and routed via a Cloud platform. No identifying information about customers or their payment details is ever transmitted in, or to the store. When the payment details are matched, customers receive their receipt on the app. This makes the instant checkout more secure than NFC (‘Contactless’) or Chip & Pin.

The Universal Tag: Breaking the Barriers of RFID 

The instant checkout capability uses brand new ‘universal tags’ that employ RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) technology. Unlike RFID tags of the past, these are small, discreet and can work on any product type regardless of materials like metal or liquid.

Once available, the universal tags allow the instant checkout to also deliver retailers a solution for the truly ‘connected store.’ By equipping shelves with ultra-discrete RFID antennas, it’s possible to know exactly what stock is in any store in real-time. This is accomplished without any costly changes to the existing shelving or infrastructure, or the need to install infrared cameras and sensors throughout the store. The only other way to gain this level of real-time inventory data would be through manual stock counts – a costly and potentially inaccurate process that most store staff only get a chance to do during slow periods or after hours.

Because customers use the app to pay, retailers are also provided with anonymized data to gain insight into what customers are buying and when. The platform also analyses IBM data about weather, local events, and trends, which means retailers get insights driven by Artificial Intelligence to be able to predict what stock they’ll need, thereby reducing waste and improving profitability for each store individually at a very local level.


Phase Two: Doing Well by Doing Good 

During the first phase, the ‘universal tags’ will be physically attached to each item via specially designed tagging guns. Initially, this enables tags to be placed and encoded in an instant. Once adoption of the instant checkout has achieved sufficient volume, the RFID technology can then be embedded directly into all product packaging and garment labels. This will eliminate the need for applying separate tags and will allow product manufacturers to store more information about each product via its unique ID number and the solution’s Cloud platform.

This is critical because fast checkout is just the beginning of IBM’s vision for this solution. By first providing customers with a fast and secure way to pay, the invention will ultimately drive five major changes for retailers and consumers alike.

1. Transform shopping

Imagine an app that can tell you precisely where everything is in every local store in real-time, without even stepping foot inside. It can also navigate you to exactly where a specific product is – even when items are put back in the wrong place. As you shop, the app can also send you discounts for the products you actually buy – instead of its best guess of what you might like.  With accurate insights combined with external data feeds, the offers coming through will be relevant and personal to you, rather than misinformed or untimely offers.

2. Empower consumers

The RFID technology means information about whether a product is truly sustainable, ethical or organic will be stored in an unalterable record that customers can access in stores and on their smart devices via the app. Once the invention is adopted by product manufacturers, the RFID technology can be used to link any individual product to its points of origin, sources of raw ingredients, factory conditions, farm classifications, nutritional information, expiry dates and more. This information is stored on a Blockchain, which is an encrypted shared ledger that every company along a retailer’s supply chain can add to, but not erase or alter.

3. Evolve the role of the shop assistant

Unlike other futurist concept stores, this invention wants to use the data and AI insights gained by having a fully connected store to evolve, not replace, the role of shop staff. For example, when equipped with the right data, training and technology, the staff in a grocery store could become trusted advisors on cooking, nutrition and food pairings – providing much-needed differentiation for a grocery retail brand that’s struggling to compete with discount rivals and online merchants.

4. Reward recycling

Once universal RFID tags are integrated into product packaging, they’ll survive the journey from the store to the customer, all the way to the recycling plant. There, scanners can be used to detect products and reward customers for recycling.

5. Reduce product packaging overall

A lot of product packaging is decided based on needing to fit a lot of product information onto the package or label in a way that’s clear, visually attractive and inexpensive. As such, product manufacturers often turn to plastic. With this RFID technology and its cloud platform, unlimited information in any format can be stored against each individual product. This information could be shared via interactive displays on shelves, and the products themselves can be wrapped in plainer, smaller and more eco-friendly packaging.

Innovation through Collaboration

When fully realized, the goal for instant checkout and the connected store will be to transform not only the way we shop as customers but also the way we behave and consume as humans. To achieve this vision in an accelerated time frame, IBM iX is collaborating with retailers, product manufacturers, wholesale distributors and many other partners from across the globe to expand, perfect and scale this invention.

Learn more about IBM iX

Inventor and Digital Transformation Leader, IBM iX

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