Bar Code Quality: Walmart Raises the Ante and Makes it Impossible

 In 101

Wired Magazine just posted an article about the next big step Walmart is taking in its fight against Amazon—and it’s a biggie. They are testing an iPhone app that brings self-checkout to a whole new level. According to the article, the app is being tested in 14 markets and is available in over 200 Wal-Mart stores.

Walmart App onSmartphone

“Scan and Go” launches when your Walmart self-checkout app is downloaded to your iPhone, and you walk into one of the enabled Walmart stores. As you wheel your cart down the aisles, you scan your purchases as you put them in your shopping cart. That’s it. The app compiles a running total. To exit, you go to any standard check-out station, select the “mobile” option on the terminal, scan the QR Code on the screen and pay as usual. Done.

Clearly Walmart understands itself as a technology company and is bringing its technology out in front of the customer—something it really needs to do as Amazon has been eating Walmart’s lunch in online sales. “Scan and Go” leverages their brick-and-mortar presence to compete in a way Amazon cannot, by treating its stores like an app. That’s really new.

At the same time, Walmart is also testing “Pick-up Today” and “Same-Day Delivery” which also compete with Amazon, which has no brick-and- mortar stores, more directly.

Aside from the battle with Amazon, “Scan and Go” gets out attention because of the additional pressure it puts on bar code performance. Self checkout at the unattended terminals was already raising the bar for barcode quality, but “Scan and Go” adds a whole new dimension, called BYOD.

BYOD or “Bring Your Own Device” is already prevalent in other sectors where workers are expected to use their own smartphones to perform certain job functions. For example a field service worker will their own smartphone to transmit customer service data to the central office server as they work through their list of visits.

The thinking behind BYOD is that employees who use their own devices will take better care of them, while saving their employer thousands of dollars in equipment costs. The downside is that central server security is much more difficult no standard smartphone operating system—right now there are about 6 major smartphone operating systems.

While we’re on the subject of no standards, “Scan and Go” brings another new wrinkle to scanning. Those self-checkout terminals at Walmart and elsewhere are equipped with scanners that are compliant to the ANSI/ISO specification for scanner performance: they scan within a specified spectrum of light, they resolve what they see with light receptor and optical chain that is compliant and they decode the data with a mathematical agorithm that is based on a compliant bar code specification. Consumer smartphones are not built to these barcode specifications. Does this make barcode quality more important or does it make them meaningless, if the scanning devices are not built to any standard for scanning? It is a good question to which there is no answer right now. Will there be scanning problems? Most likely.

Unlike the current situation, where Walmart can track and compile data pertaining to scanning problems at the attended and unattended terminals, they may be completely blind to scanning problems with the BYOD model.

One insight we already have is from a study of QR Codes and smartphone scanning, conducted by Dr. Kevin Berisso, PhD at the Automatic Identification and Data Capture Lab at Ohio University’s Russ College of Engineering an Technology.  Results are still being compiled, but early findings show that QR Codes work about 40% of the time, given the wide range of smartphone types.

This is going to be interesting to watch as Walmart rolls this out more widely.



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