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New tech will help you skip the checkout line

Shoppers line up to pay for their merchandise at a checkout counter in a Target store.
Scott Olson | Getty Images
Shoppers line up to pay for their merchandise at a checkout counter in a Target store.

There's an unwritten Murphy's law of retail: The bigger the hurry you're in, the longer the lines will be at the checkout counter. But at CES this year, a movement is on to make it easier to find what you want and get on with your day.

Leading the charge is a Denver start-up — Spruce Bot — that not only speeds up the checkout process, but lets brick-and-mortar retailers take advantage of a strength too many are ignoring — personal interaction with their customers.

"People will come into our shop and confess if they've been shopping with someone else because they feel guilty," said Taylor Romero, CEO of Spruce Bot. "We used technology to create human connections."

Picture this scenario: You walk up to the store and before you walk in, the clerk not only greets you by name, but asks about something the two of you talked about weeks ago. Or you visit your barber, who doesn't have to ask the usual questions about blade length or style preference.

Spruce Bot isn't an app. Romero theorizes that forcing customers to download and install something on their phone wouldn't work, since it's intrusive. (And, he said, they'd likely delete it as soon as they left the store anyway.) Rather it's a bot that customers connect with automatically when they log on to the store's Wi-Fi. Once they sign up (done by simply entering a confirmation code), they're tied into the system and able to use its features.

Those can be anything from instant discounts to an automated rewards card program (not having to remember to get them punched every time you buy something) to what's called a "handshake checkout."

In that last instance, once customers find a product they're interested in, they can simply remove the price tag, hand it to a sales person and walk out the door.

The start-up got its start at Spruce, a men's barbershop and clothier Romero also owns, but is looking for a wider footprint. It will deploy to some local Denver companies later this month and talks are underway with enterprise companies, Romero said.

Beyond the benefits for the customer, Spruce Bot gives retailers some help as well. Salespeople and managers can keep notes on customers, to help make the experience more personal next time. They're also able to track how frequently customers return to the store.

Spruce Bot is hardly the only company looking to enhance the brick-and-mortar customer experience. With more and more smartphones equipped with near-field communication, a technology enabling contactless transactions, and radio-frequency identification tags becoming more widespread, several retailers have experimented with the concept of skipping the checkout line.

Ironically, the one who has made the most progress is Amazon, the biggest online competitor of many brick-and-mortar stores. Last month, the company unveiled Amazon Go, a physical store in Seattle that has no registers. Instead, shoppers "scan" into the store using an Amazon app, then walk out when they've gotten what they want — with all items billed to their Amazon account. (The store will open to the public later this year.)

Checkout lines are one of the biggest choke points in retail. Several studies have shown that when there's a long line, some consumers opt to put down the items they were planning to purchase and leave the store. But by eliminating that step, retailers hope they'll see a rise in sales.