This New Retail Technology Could Spell Trouble For Your Wallet


There’s a new wave on the horizon for retail stores that could make our lives a lot easier – and our wallets a lot emptier. The new trend is the possible extinction of checkout counters in retail stores, recently reported in The Atlantic.

You might be wondering how this could possibly be a bad thing…being able to purchase items without encountering a salesperson or waiting in line means we can make our purchases more easily and get on with our day. Unfortunately, that ability to make purchases more easily is precisely the problem.

How Retail Stores Are Doing Away with the Checkout Counter

First of all, let’s talk about the motivation for retail stores to do away with the checkout counter (and the technological advancements that can make this happen). As recently discussed in The Atlantic, stores are starting to experiment with sensors that will allow people to purchase at any place in the store:

“This coming transformation in the way you pay for items in bricks-and-mortar stores will occur through a network of sensors placed strategically around stores, which will enable retailers to recognize you (through your smartphone or other devices) when you walk through the door. Inexpensive sensors also will be attached to (or embedded in) items available for purchase. And the stores will already have your preferred payment information on file, so when you exit the store with your chosen merchandise, you’ll simply be billed automatically, totally skipping any traditional checkout experience.”

At first glance, this seems pretty great! You can walk into a store, find what you need, and make a purchase as easily as going into your kitchen to grab a snack. And this certainly could increase the bottom line of retail stores who’ll inevitably need to employ fewer staff or allow their staff to focus more on serving you (and upselling you) rather than ringing you up. And given the rise in self-checkout kiosks at many grocery stores, this is a trend that feels pretty familiar already. So what’s the problem?

The more able we are as consumers to make purchases using saved payment information and avoiding a long wait, the more our in-person retail experience mirrors that of shopping on the web. The problem? Online shopping is almost too easy.

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How Retail Stores Without A Checkout Counter Could Lead to More Spending

As mentioned in a recent post on our blog, online shopping presents a unique problem: the lack of a long-wait and the ability to save payment information makes shopping so easy that you can rack up a large purchase almost before you even realize what you’re doing. As we search for items we want, websites show us more items that we might like and our logic hardly has enough time to kick in before we finish the purchase.

Yes, waiting in line can be a good thing.

Shopping in brick and mortar stores is a totally different experience. I don’t know about you, but I have a tendency to start with the items I need in a store and then acquire a lot more as I head to the checkout counter. However, waiting in line behind even just one person gives me the time to rethink what just happened – did I really need that extra add on? Am I just rationalizing why I should purchase those other things?

This train of thought saves me because, by the time I’m next in line, I’m ready to forfeit all of the extras I picked up and go back to my original purchase. While I can’t deny how frustrating that must be for the salesperson who has to put all of those things back (and who just saw their sale get cut in half), it always saves my budget.

But if stores do away with checkout counters altogether, how easy would it be for me and others to wander around a store racking up more and more items without having a minute to stop and think about what’s happening. And if the purchase can be made without even swiping a card, then there’s no point at which the shopper is forced to stop and think before leaving with their goods. Where’s the gut-check?

Balancing Convenience with Your Budget

It’s not an unusual story: the more things in our daily lives become convenient, the less we have to think about our spending (and thus the more we can spend without realizing it). That doesn’t mean we should fight back against new technology, but it does mean we have to be extra vigilant with our budgets. So as these changes take place, whether they happen in the next year or five years, keep some of these tactics in mind:

  • Always shop with a list – if it’s not on your list and you want to buy, add it on to your list for next-time.

  • Don’t let a sale convince you – the hardest way to turn down an unexpected item is if we see something we like that’s on sale. But that’s why things go on sale in the first place – and if you’re spending more than planned, then you’re not saving money, period. If you see an item you want on sale, still add it to your next shopping list. Then do some comparison shopping. Chances are you can find it for even cheaper at a later date.

  • Bring a shopping buddy or use a jointly authorized card – if you don’t trust yourself to walk away from an unplanned purchase, bring someone along that will help you resist the temptation. If you can’t always do that, use a card that you have someone else authorized on (such as a spouse or parent). If you know they can see the purchase as soon as it’s made, that could be a great way to prevent you from making unnecessary purchases.

As always, mindfulness is the key to achieving a balanced budget. Using mindfulness as your number one tool will enable you to achieve financial success no matter what changes arise in the market and in technology!

Image Credit: Rene Bastiaanssen

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