By David Fenner

Have you noticed that things are changing at the checkout?

If you are noticing the queues in your store getting longer, there’s a good chance it is because your scanner is failing to read the new sets of barcodes that have permeated the market. But what do the queues have to do with the Point of Sale (POS) system you’ve grown to trust over the years? After all, you scan the item and that’s it, right?

It was. Your current scanner may be able to scan standard (1D) barcodes, which have served us well since the 1970s, and used to be more than enough to ensure prompt service, a quick sale and a happy customer. But times have changed and so too has the humble barcode, and if you want to provide your customers with the best experience at the checkout, your POS solutions will need to move with the times as well.

The barcode evolves
The majority of barcodes presented at the checkout are still more than likely 1D, but new barcodes have emerged, such as GS1 DataBar, stacked barcodes and 2D barcodes.

Typically, the 1D barcode contains the SKU number and that’s it. The GS1 and 2D barcodes can hold extra information about the product – such as the expiration date – and in a much smaller area than the traditional barcode. It is this additional information that has made this barcode a no-brainer to include on perishable goods and small items, and as a result these codes are becoming more pervasive.

These barcodes have benefits for both the consumer and the retailer. Expired and expiring goods are easier to locate in a store, enabling their swift removal and replacement and ensuring fresh goods are on the shelves or expiring goods are put on sale. And with a better and more granular inventory of information, retailers can obtain a better picture of the products they’re selling and in turn improve the ordering process.

But these barcodes are only of benefit if your checkout scanner can read them. A 1D scanner may not be able to read them easily, if at all. This could result in the frustrating process of entering the code manually, which would slow down the queue, increase the likelihood of human error and frustrate the customer.

And with the GS1 DataBarcodes set to become standard in Australia as soon as February 2014, that picture of a frustrated customer could soon become the norm at your store.

The coupon goes digital
In days of yore, retailers only had to contend with the 1D barcode being printed on paper.

But we live in a world where the smartphone does everything for the customer, including holding coupons containing barcodes. Instead of customers carrying loyalty cards and filling their purses with coupons, they now hold all that information in apps on their smart device, on electronic barcodes known as mobile barcodes.

This is convenient for the customer, who no longer has to stand at the checkout rifling through their pockets looking for the appropriate coupon. But they could potentially face greater frustration if your checkout scanner is unable to scan their phone.

Aside from the embarrassment that the customer is more technologically capable than your POS system, the process slows down as the cashier would have to enter the data manually. 

In short, an outdated checkout scanner can significantly damage the customer experience at the final hurdle, and as it is the last thing they’ll remember it could be a while before you see them again.

It’s therefore paramount you ensure your checkout scanner is capable of reading more than a 1D barcode. The next-generation of scanners are image-based and can handle the gamut of barcodes thrown at it, and no matter what they happen to be scanning – be it paper or a touch screen.
But what should you look out for with any new scanner?

For one, scanning performance should be a priority. Getting a scan completed on the first time, every time is the key to keeping the queue moving, even if a barcode is poorly printed or damaged.

You also need to ensure the new scanner can read any and all forms of barcode, as we have discussed already, and on whatever material they happen to be on: paper, plastic or smartphone screens.

Finally, the POS system should also be flexible – you should be able to add a self-service mobile phone scanner for customers in the future, and you should also be able to scan bulky items with ease using a handheld.

No matter how well you lay out your store, no matter how easy it is to find things and no matter how nice your staff are, if that queue at the checkout moves like quicksand then chances are when that customer leaves they won’t come back. The checkout remains the most important part of the purchasing process, and while the evolution in the barcode will benefit you, if you aren’t prepared then those extended queues could shrink and not for the reasons you want.

David Fenner is the general manager of retail at Motorola Solutions Australia and New Zealand.