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story.lead_photo.caption This June 25, 2019, file photo shows the entrance to a Walmart location. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

Walmart Inc. is testing a new self-checkout system at one of its Fayetteville stores in an effort to shorten lines and get customers through checkout faster. But shoppers can still have a store employee check out and bag their items if they prefer, a Walmart spokesman said.

At the Supercenter in Spring Creek Centre near the Northwest Arkansas Mall, Walmart has redesigned the front of the store, replacing the conveyer belt lanes with self-checkout counters.

"It will look different than what most people are used to seeing with a Walmart checkout area, but it will continue to offer every checkout option to customers that all of our other stores offer," Walmart spokesman Kory Lundberg said. "Each trip looks different to each customer, and therefore, we ultimately want to provide them options and convenience that suits their needs."

If the pilot program is successful, it may eventually expand to more of Walmart's 4,700 U.S. stores.

The new system won't eliminate jobs like the Amazon Go cashier-less stores. Instead, Lundberg stressed, it will just change cashiers' roles.

"Rather than having one cashier assigned to a single cash register, we will have multiple checkout hosts assigned to the customer checkout area to move back and forth to different registers to assist customers as they want to be assisted," he said.

Carol Spieckerman, a retail consultant and president of Spieckerman Retail, called the new concept being tested in Fayetteville "timely and relevant as shoppers seek greater safety and control over the the checkout process" during the covid-19 pandemic. "More shoppers may even decide to shop this store rather than relying on delivery or e-commerce for that reason alone," she said.

Customers may be drawn to the store by a perception of increased safety and control, Spieckerman said.

As for the benefits to Walmart, Spieckerman said, drawing shoppers into the store increases the potential for customers to make impulse purchases along with the items on their shopping lists.

One problem Walmart faces with self-checkout is the view of some shoppers that it translates into job losses, "so anything Walmart can do to disabuse shoppers of that perception will be helpful," Spieckerman said.

The pilot program is the latest in Walmart's evolving use of self-checkout. The retailer began testing what was then cutting-edge technology in the early 2000s, according to news website Vox. In 2012, while it was adding more self-checkout lanes to stores, it experimented with having shoppers use their smartphones to scan their items and then go to a special counter for payment, Reuters reported.

Then in 2017, Walmart began experimenting at a small number of stores with Scan & Go, a technology that let shoppers scan and pay for items without going through checkout lines. Scan & Go required shoppers to use a mobile app to scan their items and then click to pay for them. They showed the digital receipt to an employee as they left the store.

Scan & Go flopped with Walmart customers and was abandoned after a few months. However, it proved popular with shoppers at Sam's Club, Walmart's members-only warehouse division, where it's still in use. Analysts said Sam's Club carries far fewer items than Walmart stores, and most of those are prepackaged with bar codes, requiring less effort for customers at checkout.

Neil Stern, senior partner with retail consultant McMillan-Doolittle, said another reason Scan & Go succeeded at Sam's Club is because its members tend to be higher income and more tech savvy than the average Walmart customer, and so are more likely to embrace new technology.

Scan & Go does require a bit more work on the part of customers, Stern said, but the benefit is avoiding long, slow-moving checkout lines. "So if you tell me I can save money or time, I think I'm more willing to make that investment," he said.

Walmart has introduced other checkout options in recent years that help shoppers avoid waiting in lines at the register. One of these is "Check Out with Me," which the retailer touts heavily during the Christmas shopping season. Workers positioned in high-traffic areas of a store use a mobile device to scan customers' merchandise and complete sales transactions.

And more innovations in checkout are likely to come down the line as Walmart continues exploring new technologies to improve customer experience and business operations. For instance, Walmart's Intelligent Retail Lab inside a Supercenter in Levittown, N.Y., studies the uses of artificial intelligence to speed up checkout as well as returns and in-store pickup.

Sam's Club has its own lab located in a small-format store in the Dallas area. Called Sam's Club Now, the store functions as both a retail club and tech lab, integrating customer service with digital innovations. It's about one-fourth the size of a typical Sam's Club warehouse, ideal for testing and refining innovations that may eventually be adopted throughout the chain, Sam's Club said.

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