A sales staff member at Barneys New York uses an iPod Touch to help customers pay for items in seven of its regular-price stores. Retailers have been looking for ways to modernize checkout procedures. Smartphones and tablets help free up cashers to help around (Bebeto Matthews /Associated Press)
Ka-ching! The cash register may be on its final sale. Stores across the country are ditching the old-fashioned, clunky machines and having salespeople — and even shoppers themselves — ring up sales on smartphones and tablet computers.
Barneys New York, a luxury retailer, this year plans to use iPads or iPod Touch devices for credit and debit card purchases in seven of its nearly two dozen regular-price stores. Urban Outfitters, a teen clothing chain, ordered its last traditional register last fall and plans to go completely mobile one day. And Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, is testing a "Scan & Go" app that lets customers scan their items as they shop.
"The traditional cash register is heading toward obsolescence," said Danielle Vitale, chief operating officer of Barneys New York.
That the cash register is getting the boot is no surprise. The writing has been on the wall for a long time for the iconic machine, which was created in the late 1800s. The register was essential in nearly every retail location by 1915, but it now seems outdated in a world in which smartphones and tablets increasingly are replacing everything from books to ATMs to cameras.
Stores like smartphones and tablets because they take up less floor space than registers and free cashiers to help customers instead of being tethered to one spot. They also are cheaper: For instance, iPads with accessories like credit card readers can cost a store $1,500, compared with $4,000 for a register. And Americans increasingly want the same speedy service in physical stores that they get from shopping online.
J.C. Penney, a mid-price department-store chain, said the response by customers has been great since it started rolling out iPod Touch devices late last year in its 1,100 stores. The goal is to have one in the hands of every salesperson by May.
It's been a long fall for the cash register, which innovated retail as we know it. The first register was invented following the Civil War by a little-known saloon owner.
Stores have been looking for ways to modernize checkout. Since 2003, self-checkout areas that enable customers to scan and bag their own merchandise have become commonplace in grocery and other stores. But recently, there's been a push to go a step further: Stores now are taking their cue from the success of Apple Inc., the nation's most profitable retailer, which went to mobile checkout in its stores in 2006.
Take upscale handbag maker Coach, which is using iPod Touch devices at half of its 189 factory outlet stores. The company also is testing them in a handful of its 350 regular stores.
The move has enabled Coach to start slimming down its registers to the size of small podiums, leaving extra space that is equivalent to three days of product and a display table for the average store, said Francine Della Badia, Coach's executive vice president of merchandising.
Some retailers have decided to go completely mobile. Urban Outfitters, which operates more than 400 stores under its namesake brand, Anthropologie and Free People, announced in late September that all sales eventually will be rung up on iPods and iPads on swivels located at counters. The company didn't give a timeframe for when it would go completely mobile.
Nordstrom, an upscale department-store chain that's considered within the retail industry to be the gold standard in customer service, also plans to get rid of registers altogether.