Instant Checkout

The 4th season of The Wire on HBO opens with Snoop, a young drug dealer from Baltimore, walking into a Home Depot to buy a replacement nail gun. An employee comes over and helpfully explains the pros and cons of all the different models:

SNOOP: I’m gonna go with this right here. How much I owe ya?

EMPLOYEE: $669, plus tax.

[Snoop pulls out a huge roll of hundred dollar bills.]

EMPLOYEE: No, no, you just pay at the register.

SNOOP: No, man. You go ahead and handle that for me. And keep the rest for your time.

EMPLOYEE: But… this is 800 dollars.

SNOOP: So what, man. You earned that buck like a motherf%cker. Keep that sh%t.

She turns around and ambles out of the store with her purchase. I thought about this while I was waiting in line at the grocery store the other day. Instant personalized checkout, what a great service! It only really works with simple transactions. Drug dealing certainly qualifies, which I guess is the basis for the humor in that episode. Buying a hotdog from a roving vendor at the ballpark is probably a more wholesome example.

Now that I think about it, there are lots of services that dispense with the whole “waiting in line” concept.

It’s pretty common for rental car returns. They scan your car and print a receipt right there in the parking lot. Seems like they do this at the Apple store too. Whenever the line at the register gets too long employees filter out into the crowd and ring people up with hand-held checkout devices. Bank of America even gets into the act. Whenever I have a simple deposit a roving employee sometimes pulls me out of line to handle the transaction with a handwritten receipt.

As a design exercise it’d be interesting to apply this pattern to other areas we might not expect. DMV, post office, movie theaters… Back to my grocery example: if I don’t want to wait in line I usually just pop into one of the corner grocery stores here in the neighborhood. But it’d be great to walk into a monolithic Safeway to pick up a carton of milk, hand a few bucks to the Dairy guy and be on my way.

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