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Is RFID the solution to the obstacles in retail’s self-scanning checkouts?

By Caitlyn Terra


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Uniqlo's self-checkout in the store in Luxembourg. Credits: Uniqlo

Self-scanners in retail divide opinion, both among consumers and experts. Some are fans because it reduces contact with shop assistants and is generally faster, while others find it a source of frustration. In addition, shoplifting lurks among the self-scanning checkouts and, according to experts, it is even a growing problem.

While self-scanning has mostly been widely introduced in food retail and some drugstores, it is also increasingly common in fashion stores and sports retailers. Consider Uniqlo and Decathlon, for example. At the respective Japanese fashion chain and the French sports retailer, it has even been the case that the customer no longer needs to scan the items. They simply place items in a bin, causing the details of all products to appear on the screen in no time. Just checkout and done.

To self-scan or not to self-scan? Thanks to RFID technology, it goes smoother at Uniqlo and Decathlon

The self-scanning checkouts use RFID (radio frequency identification). This means customers no longer have to manually scan the barcode one by one, but the computer scans the RFID tags as the items are placed in the bin. Within the self-scanning checkouts, RFID antennas have been installed, making self-scanning easier, a Uniqlo spokesperson explained to FashionUnited.

RFID (radio frequency identification) is a technology that allows objects to be identified wirelessly. Data is transmitted through radio waves. For it to work, it requires an RFID chip (in this case in the hangtag of clothes) and an RFID reader (in the POS system).

A Decathlon spokesperson added that RFID technology is not always flawless. "Sometimes a product is not scanned by the checkout when the RFID radiation is blocked by existing materials, for example. When a product is not paid for, the alarm gates go off." A host(ess) placed at the tills then checks which item has not been paid for so that payment is still made.

Decathlon stated that the RFID system did make preventing theft easier. "In the situation 'I have two of the same items, but I only scan one' it naturally stands out if a customer deliberately keeps an item outside the bin". The sports retailer also said that all hosts and hostesses are trained on how to deal with theft, also noting that it is therefore not always intentional, partly due to the possibility that RFID radiation may be blocked.

The system reduces waiting time at checkouts by about 50 percent, Uniqlo further pointed out. For those unfamiliar with the system, an employee is always on hand to help customers. For Decathlon, the self-scanning system is also important to promote 'openness' that the shop strives for, allowing people to easily walk in and out of the shop.

Self-scanning checkouts at fashion stores: The future?

Hans van Tellingen, director at shopping centre researcher Strabo, was cautiously positive. "It sounds pretty convenient. That you don't have to scan every item yourself that I see as an improvement," he pointed out. "Also, with RFID in the bin, the responsibility is placed on the retailer and not on the consumer standing around scanning. The consumer is then no longer liable." Van Tellingen also saw this as something positive. "At other self-scanning checkouts, you still get the feeling that you are a thief if you are pulled aside for a check. Now the liability of properly scanning the products lies with the retailer."

Van Tellingen also makes another good point that technological innovations may not always be implemented at every shop in the long run. Or perhaps not in the way people expect now. For example, RFID self-checkout systems can also be used to make life easier for cashiers. "That way you still have human interaction and someone can answer questions when needed, but RFID does improve efficiency," he noted. He pointed out that technical innovations are good, but does not mean that they translate one-to-one in the shop. "Maybe a softer version of it will be introduced, or the option will always remain that you checkout with a human."

This article originally appeared on FashionUnited.NL. Translation and edit by: Rachel Douglass.