Sunday, November 25, 2018

China and the Case of the Disappearing Checkout Lines

A couple months ago I went on a trip to Beijing to visit my in laws. While getting out of the house, I had a some interesting (from a payment geek point of view) trips to the store.

The first trip was to Watson’s - a large chain pharmacy with the ubiquity of CVS in the US or Shopper’s Drug Mart in Canada. I got in line to pay but the cashiers weren’t behind the counter, instead they were in front of the counter helping people with their phones. On and beside the counter were signs with QR codes for customers to scan. When I scanned, I got to a Watson’s page where I could scan my items and pay. The cashiers were there if I wanted to pay cash but it was clear that lining up was now optional and not surprisingly most people preferred not to line up.

The next time I went to Watsons I simply walked up to the QR code, scanned it, scanned my own items on my phone, paid, and left. No lining up, no annoying self-scan machine that constantly tells you to place items here or there. Quick and simple (though I wondered how they managed to control fraud).

The second trip was to KFC for breakfast. Again, when I got there, a greeter made it clear I could skip the line by scanning a QR code and ordering with my phone. So while I was in line, I scanned the code from the sign (conveniently with an extremely large QR code) and proceeded to order and pay for my breakfast before I got to the front of the line. I then waited for my order number (which showed up on my phone) to be called and took my food.

The next time I went to KFC I didn’t wait - I looked in my phone’s history, ordered and paid on the app while still a few minutes away from the store. When I got to the store my order number was up and I got my food with zero wait - this wasn’t fast food this was instant food! I did this a few times and it worked brilliantly except for the day when I arrived too early (a few minutes before the store opened) and mistakenly ordered for pickup at the nearest store with an earlier opening time that had opened. Oops! The team was nice enough to phone over and cancel the order - they even refunded me though clearly it was my mistake.

Stepping back, one of the things that makes this possible is that any application or web developer in China can easily make an API call that presents the user with a seamless payment experience - when a user needs to pay they are redirected to the user’s choice of apps (WeChat or Alipay) and can pay from their phone. No need to have a user enter their credit card details either during the transaction or via a registration process. Simply call the API and (if the user agrees and authenticates) the payment completes. Typically this is a Touch ID/Face ID/PIN type input on the phone that’s very smooth and seamless.

It’s nice to see major brands using this capability to innovate to help them save on costs and to help their customers save time. I look forward to the same becoming more widespread here in North America.

Screenshot of Watson’s self-checkout payment:

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