There is a Treasure Island grocery store across the street from Mobile Doorman world headquarters. The Mobile Doormen frequently goes to this supermarket to buy lunch. Recently, the store launched a mobile app through which discounts and other promotions could be obtained and customer loyalty could be gained. While we don’t use the app much, we applaud their efforts. We know innovation in grocery retail is difficult, especially given the razor thin margins that cloak the sector.

cash-register-576769__180It was at Treasure Island on a recent Tuesday afternoon that we started thinking about how mobile technology could really make a difference in supermarkets. The idea came about while waiting to check out. Graham (lunch choice: rotisserie chicken and minestrone soup) chose a lane that moved quite quickly. Bob (rib tips and chicken noodle soup) was less fortunate and had to wait an eternity as the customers in front of him, aided by the clerk at the register, moved slower than a bulldozer in mud.

Back at the office we reheated our now cool soup and started to reflect on what had just happened. Our thoughts swiftly began to congregate around one question:

Why can’t we use our mobile phones to check out our groceries at the supermarket as we go through the store putting items in our cart?

It seems there are plenty of reasons we should be able to do this:

  • We use our phones to scan coupons, and, as of more recently, to pay at checkout.
  • We can order and pay for groceries on our phones.
  • Supermarkets already trust consumers with self-checkout lanes.
  • Some stores have scan-as-you-go capabilities for wish lists (such as for wedding registries).
  • Bulky items such as 24 packs of toilet paper can be tricky to scan on the installed scanners.
  • Space where registers currently sit could become profit-generating instead of cost-incurring.
  • Stores would need fewer employees. Shoppers would spend less time wasting time in lines.
  • Being able to place paid-for groceries in the bag you bring with may reduce the amount of plastic bags required.

We’re aware we’re not the first to advocate this idea, and we understand that there are other considerations that ultimately determine its viability. The point is that many of the underlying behaviors required for this system to take hold are already in place. We should only have to reheat our soup because we had to walk outside in the middle of January in Chicago, not because it took an eon to pay for it.

What’s more, such a system could yield actionable learnings for the retailers. For example, how would a check-out-as-you-go system would impact overall spend? Would people stop buying once they hit a certain dollar limit? Would they buy more if they saw their list didn’t total what they had planned to spend? The insight into price psychology could be fascinating.

Implementing a system like this, even on a trial basis, would be a challenging and risky step for retailers. It may even fail because of other reasons, for example too many people unwilling to take a break from texting or Instagram while shopping to scan an item. But the reward is much bigger than using mobile technology to just offer 10% off a carton of milk and that will be hard to ignore for long.