Check It Out: Hand-Held Scanners Will Change the Way You Shop

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Word of the future rarely arrives in the form of ordinary junk mail. But sometimes established (read: old) technologies are the best way to introduce new ones. (Just ask any of the magazine publishers who grew fat and happy, however briefly, on the VC money of early Internet players. But I digress.)

In this case, a simple postcard brought news of a digital-yes, that dreaded, wonderful word again-innovation that could remake the retail experience.

The mailing came from the Container Store, a chain as remarkable for the simplicity of its concept (it sells stuff in which you store stuff) as Starbucks. It's a tad smaller at 35 U.S. stores and $440 million in sales, but equally renowned for its focus on customer service and employee training.

Rather than pitching the latest storage solution, the Container Store mailing touted a new customer service with a clunky label, GoShop Scan & Deliver, but a potentially transformative premise.

As of this month, shoppers at the Container Store in Manhattan can register a credit card number at the counter and get a wireless hand-held scanner. As they walk the aisles, they scan in barcodes on desired items then pay for the purchases, which are delivered to their homes the same day.

Such customer self-service devices have been talked about and tested for years, and various retailers such as sporting-goods chain Modell's have armed store clerks with wireless devices to assist customers and track inventory.

But few stores have actually put scanners in customers' hands, so it's far from an everyday shopping experience. Where scanners have been used, it's mostly been in places that are already self-serve environments, like gas stations or grocery stores. Even then, customers have to place groceries in a cart, scan them with a handheld or checkout device, bag them and carry them away.

But the Container Store is going the next step, eliminating the need to carry around items, wheel around carts or lug purchases home. That also eliminates physical and psychological limits on how much is purchased in a single trip.

The average purchase of a delivery customer in Container Store's New York outlet is 10 times that of a shopper who carries away her goods, said John Thrailkill, VP-stores for the chain. "So you can see how the wheels started to turn."

While supermarkets and the like see such devices primarily as a way to improve the bottom line by cutting labor costs, the Container Store insists it views them as a way to grow the top line by creating a better shopping experience-particularly in Manhattan, which is unique from even other major markets in its reliance on home delivery since few people here have cars and those who do refuse to give up their parking spaces. Shoppers in Manhattan can already order groceries and even books over the Internet for same-day delivery.

This isn't just a New York thing, though, nor is it merely a Container Store gimmick. As the use of Radio Frequency ID technology grows and mobile devices improve, shoppers will walk into retail outlets of all stripes and use cellphones and PDAs to order and pay for goods while stores track their purchases and offer customized sales pitches. That will change everything from inventory management to marketing to the size of stores and number of employees in them.

Like everything else in the digital age, the common thread is consumer empowerment.

"We're seeing more and more people demanding the ability to dictate the shopping experience," Thrailkill said. "If you ignore that, you're setting yourself up for lost sales. We're trying to stay in front of it."

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