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New technology could eliminate long checkout lines for military shoppers

An airman uses a self-checkout kiosk inside the commissary at Yokota Air Base, Japan, Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2018.

ALLEN ONSTOTT/STARS AND STRIPES

By SETH ROBSON AND LEON COOK | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 22, 2018

Exchange and commissary operators on overseas military bases are looking at new technology that could put an end to long checkout lines.

The Army and Air Force Exchange Service wants to develop systems like those used at an Amazon outlet that opened in Washington state earlier this year.

“You walk into the store and you have a code or an account with the store and you take out whatever you want without having to go to a cash register,” Col. Scott Maskery, AAFES Pacific commander, said of the concept in a phone interview earlier this month.

The Amazon Go store, which opened in Seattle in January, lets smartphone-carrying shoppers take items like milk, potato chips or ready-to-eat salads off shelves and simply walk out. Sensors track what customers take and charge them electronically, according to Canadian broadcaster CTV News.

“We’re looking to develop it,” Maskery said of the new technology without putting a timeline on when exchange shoppers might be able to use it.

Meanwhile, the Defense Commissary Agency is looking at ways to update self-checkout systems that allow customers to scan and pay for groceries — without the aid of a cashier.

The kiosks account for more than 40 percent of transactions and 20 percent of sales at commissaries, agency spokesman Kevin Robinson said in an email Tuesday.

A “mobile shopping capability” may be piloted at some stores in the future, he said. “With mobile shopping, our customers will be able to use their smart phones to scan items as they shop and quickly pay at a [self-checkout] or regular lane without having to re-scan their items.”

Retailers constantly look for ways to use technology for better efficiency, customer service and cost savings, Robinson added.

“DeCA is no different in that regard,” he said.

The new technology sounds like a time saver, said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Marae Gerard, 32, who was shopping Wednesday at the Yokota Air Base commissary in western Tokyo.

“It would be quick for lunchtime if you were grabbing one or two items … a bottle of water or [an energy drink] and scan it and walk out without standing in line,” she said.

There’ll probably still be plenty of people working in the shops despite the innovations, Gerard added.

“There might be more customer service people than cashiers. There’s always going to be issues with something not scanning right,” she said.

Google and Apple Pay

Contactless payment services that allow customers to buy things with a wave of a smartphone appear to have had a slow takeoff at Pacific military bases.

Apple Pay and Google Pay services have been introduced in recent years by both AAFES and DeCA. AAFES has accepted the contactless payments since rolling out new “chip and PIN” card readers in 2016, said spokesman Chris Ward.

The equipment, which reads credit and debit cards that have electronic chips and personal identification numbers, can also communicate with smartphones. Shoppers using Apple or Google Pay can complete a transaction by holding their device over a reader and pressing a few buttons.

The agencies haven’t gathered data on the number of contactless transactions, but reports suggest they’re not yet gaining traction with troops.

Many asked about the services at the Yokota exchange this month hadn’t heard of them and none had used contactless payments.

Julie Milush, an Air Force spouse waiting in the checkout line, said she knows about Apple Pay but doesn’t use it.

“Linking my debit card to my phone feels sketchy,” she said. “It’s already bad enough to lose a phone.”

Cashiers said there are customers who buy things with their phones, but they’re far less common than people using debit cards.

“I see people wave their phones over that [reader] sometimes,” said Bruce Merritt, who works at Yokota’s commissary. “Sometimes they even use their watch.”

Contactless payments aren’t an option at Navy Exchanges because the upgraded card readers aren’t yet activated, and Navy Exchange Command has not issued a target date for updating the systems.

The Marine Corps Exchange accepts such payments at some locations, including Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, but not all.

AAFES restaurants are upgrading to the chip-card PIN readers and all should have them by October, Ward said.

robson.seth@stripes.com
Twitter: @SethRobson1

cook.leon@stripes.com

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