Cash registers could be ringing up their last sales


Published: Wednesday, March 27, 2013 at 1:38 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, March 27, 2013 at 1:38 p.m.

New York

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A sales staff member at Barney’s New York uses an iPod Touch to help a customer make a purchase in New York. Stores across the country are ditching the old-fashioned, clunky cash registers and instead having salespeople — and shoppers themselves — check out on smartphones and tablet computers. (The 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 The register was essential in nearly every retail location by 1915, but it now seems outdated in a world in which smartphones and tablets increasingly are replacing everything from books to ATMs to cameras.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 up cashiers to help customers instead of being tethered to one spot. They also are cheaper: For instance, Apple Inc.'s 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.

"Consumers want the retailer to bring the register to them," said Lori Schafer, executive adviser at SAS Institute Inc., which creates software for major retailers.

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. The company said that about a quarter of purchases at its stores nationwide now come from an iPod Touch.

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. Before then, most store owners were in the dark about whether they were making a profit, and many suffered since it was easy for sales clerks to steal from the cash drawer unnoticed. But by 1915, cash registers were ubiquitous in stores across the country, with more than 1.5 million sold by then.

More recently, 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 further.

As a result, companies that make traditional cash registers are racing to come up with new solutions. NCR Corp., formerly known as the National Cash Register Co., was the first to manufacturer the cash register on a large scale.

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