New products, Shopping

Walmart expands the (scan-and-checkout) future of shopping

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

Walmart is expanding the deployment of a scan-and-go technology that could potentially transform the way we shop at brick-and-mortar stores.

The nation’s largest retailer is rolling out the new service in at least 10 additional locations in the Dallas-Fort Worth and Nasvhille metropolitan areas, Chain Store Age reported this week. By the end of August, the technology will be available at approximately 22 stores across the country.

In April, weeks after Walmart introduced the new technology at a recently opened store outside Houston, this Austin dad who travels to the Space City constantly for my teenage son’s soccer games decided to visit the store to take this new way of shopping for a test drive.

Scan & Go, Walmart’s name for the technology, describes how it works. Using a handheld device, you scan each item as it goes into your cart.

Getting shoppers to scan and bag their own purchases is certainly in the interest of stores, but it can save money and hassles for shoppers, too. Scanning items as they go in the cart means none of those unpleasant surprises at the checkout line when an item rings up to be more than you expected. You can see your running total while still in the aisles — and if an item needs to go back on the shelf, you can subtract it.

Scan away
As my son and I entered the store, an island teeming with scanners that resembled a stripped-down version of those used by delivery drivers was waiting for us. I tapped on the island’s welcome touchscreen and a green light went on, activating one of the scanners with an anticipatory click. My son quickly grabbed the scanner, and off we went. (A scanner is one more thing to carry, but the carts come with a dock at the handlebar to rest the device when it’s not in use.)

First stop: the sports section. If your son is like mine, there are two things you’ll be replacing constantly: water cooler jugs and soccer balls. My son picked a red-and-black cooler jug and we made our first scan. The scanner worked smoothly, unlike the unpredictable ones I sometimes wrestle with at my local grocery store’s self-checkout line. The scanner read the barcodes accurately and on the first try.

As we quickly discovered, the scanning process becomes second nature, making for a speedy shopping trip when you realize you can start bagging items as you go. (They don’t need to be taken them out of the cart during checkout.)

If, say, you’re buying three cans of tomato soup, scan one and adjust the quantity on the scanner’s touchscreen. If you scan an item and change your mind later (or if your son scans a Blu-ray Disc of “Fast & Furious” by accident), tap the trash can icon next to the item to remove it from your shopping list.


Produce peeves
After a quick stop by the snacks aisle to pick up some fuel for my ever-hungry teenager, we headed over to produce, where the scanning process proved more challenging than everywhere else.

I’ll spare you details of our various failed attempts — this is how it works: You weigh your produce first at a conventional hanging scale, then look it up on the scanner by name. Once you’ve selected it, you enter the weight manually — and that’s it. No need to print sticky labels or even weigh the item again at checkout. How will Wal-Mart make sure customers are entering the right weight, or even the right produce, is an intriguing question (Wal-Mart officials didn’t reply to an interview request.)

Checkout is a breeze
A couple of Granny Smith apples and 2 pounds of bananas later, we headed for the checkout. It took us longer than I thought to get it right because I tapped “Start” on the self-checkout register first. With Scan & Go, you bypass that first obvious step. Simply scan the QR code on the checkout screen with the scanner and your shopping list will be pulled automatically. Proceed with the payment of your choice, and voilà.

As we left, we swung back by the Scan & Go island to return the scanner and then showed our receipt to the associate at the door (Walmart will be conducting random checks on customers to make sure their receipts match the contents in their carts, Costco-style.)

Scan & Go on your phone
You might be wondering whether there’s an app for this scan and shop technology — and there is (available for both Apple and Android phones) — but it will work only at stores enabled with the Scan & Go technology (currently just this one in Texas and another one in Arkansas.)

Other retailers using in-aisle scanning include Ohio-based Kroger (Scan-Bag-Go), California Fresh Market in San Luis Obispo, Calif., and the Giant Food supermarket chain (Scan It!) that operates stores in Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and the District of Columbia. According to Wal-Mart’s corporate website, the Scan & Go mobile app is also available at Sam’s Club locations nationwide.

To my son’s dismay – snacks notwithstanding – he was starving after his soccer game and Dad’s assignment-expedition to Walmart— we went back to the store and shopped again, using the mobile app this time around.

The scanner on the app worked as efficiently as the ones available at the store, but the app offered added benefits: You can skip the checkout line entirely by paying directly from the app. Also, it keeps a history of your grocery shopping in one place as purchases generate electronic receipts — which also can make returns easy.

Cards only
The biggest downside to the app’s convenience is that it accepts only credit and debit cards. If you are like two other customers I interviewed outside of the Walmart, this payments limitation is not a plus.

Kerry (no last name provided) lives nearby in The Woodlands and decided to check out the store partly because she’d heard about the scanners. “It was novel, made shopping a little bit more fun,” she said.

While checking out was faster and she’ll use the scan next time, Kerry said she probably wouldn’t opt for the app. “I try not to get my credit card number floating around any more than necessary.”

Budget helper
Champion Forest resident Iginio Pirela had used the scanner once before. On his second visit, he and his wife made a large shopping trip. He thought the exit associate “would double-check everything in our cart item by item, but she just took a quick peek.”

Pirela liked that the scanner allowed him to see his running total as he shopped. The convenience makes it easier to manage a budget on the spot, he said.

Would he try the app next time? Pirela, also not a fan of entering his card information, said the store scanner was already easy enough to use, so he’d stick with it.

Had I not been testing the app myself, I also wouldn’t have entered my card details. I couldn’t get my head around why the app didn’t offer the option to link my PayPal or Apple Pay accounts — or, for those who have one anyway, a Walmart Pay account.

The future of shopping?
Is this the way we will be grocery shopping soon? It’s hard to know. The supermarket industry seems ripe for disruption, and while several retailers have been testing in-aisle scanning for a while, the technology hasn’t caught on yet — persisting technical challenges seem to be, partly at least, holding it back.

But that could change if giants Wal-Mart and Amazon (which is testing its own checkout-free functionality at an Amazon Go store in Seattle) succeed at integrating them widely, making mobile scan-and-checkout instantaneously mainstream.

Walmart hasn’t announced when it will be rolling out Scan & Go nationwide, and I’m not a regular customer of theirs anyway, so I don’t see myself using this technology anytime soon. I’d be excited, however, to use a similar mobile scanner at the stores where I shop (I’m looking at you, H-E-B and Trader Joe’s here in Austin, Texas) — as long as it wouldn’t mean the loss of thousands of jobs.

See related: ‘The Aisles Have Eyes’ author talks privacy and data in shopping

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  • As tech grows, jobs change, and processes change. We are not a huge fan of this one currently, but only time will tell.