CVS is edging towards an Apple-style cashierless checkout

Pharmacy retailer CVS wants to cut time in the customer checkout process by making it easier for customers to scan and pay for items themselves and by building technology to let people check out customers while they roam the aisles.

The company said on Tuesday it’s working with Toshiba to make this happen through a platform called TCx Elevate, which lets it bring together a series of legacy tech systems into one platform, and through it, gather data to learn more about customers. CVS and Toshiba did not respond to requests for comment, but industry observers say it’s a move to keep pace with industry giants like Starbucks, Amazon and Walmart.

“This is part of a trend to bringing more technology into stores; we’ve seen for years there’s been a lot of [talk] about Amazon’s death grip on the industry,” said Euromonitor global head of digital consumer research Michelle Evans. “What’s interesting about Toshiba is it’s a platform a retailer can plug into and still bring on enhancements, and, also, we’ve seen the industry roll out self-checkout machines and roll them back because consumers didn’t like them or because they saw theft increase.”

It’s unclear whether CVS’s self-scanning enhancements will go beyond improving the checkout machines that are currently being used in stores. Retailers have experimented with letting customers scan items anywhere in stores through loaned devices or scanning apps on their phones. CVS, which has been adding self-checkout machines for nearly a decade, said three years ago that it would be removing machines at some locations. Beyond self-checkout, it’s been focusing on improving digital experiences. Two years ago, CVS rolled out a mobile payment platform called CVS Pay, which, like Walmart Pay, lets customers scan a barcode linked to a debit or credit card at the cashier. In August, it launched a tool to let customers get health advice through smartphone video.

Like CVS, industry players that are testing tools to give customers the ability to scan items anywhere in stores include Walmart, Kroger and Tesco.

Walmart, which ran two self-scan trials, first in 2013 and a later experiment in 2017, abandoned the technology in April due to low adoption and a lack of customer comfort with the process. Customers may resist using a third-party device to scan items themselves, and they may be reticent to download an app to complete a checkout process, argues Forrester principal analyst Sucharita Kodali.

For customers to be open to scanning items themselves instead of letting cashiers do it for them, they need to know it will significantly improve their experience, said PayGility Advisors partner David True.

“Walmart couldn’t get it to work. Why would anyone at CVS care?” he said.

An Apple Store-style mobile point-of-sale capability, which retailers like the Gap are also testing, offers more promise. Walmart, which has been experimenting with mobile point of sale through a tool called “Checkout with Me” at 350 of its stores, recently told Digiday early results were encouraging. If CVS can reduce time and increase the number of transactions, it has a good chance of achieving success, said True.

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