AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
This holiday season, you may have noticed something while doing your shopping: Mobile devices are beginning to replace other methods of payment at traditional retailers. As NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports from Seattle, mobile payments are just one of many technology-driven changes remaking brick-and-mortar stores.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ladies' shoes, next available please.
WENDY KAUFMAN, BYLINE: The women's shoe department at Nordstrom's flagship store is bustling. Shoppers are trying on everything from stilettos to rain boots. And when they're ready to buy, they can pay up right where they are. The sales associate simply whips out a modified iPod Touch and scans the bar code on the shoe box.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: So you can see there's your total right there.
KAUFMAN: The handheld device contains a credit card reader too. And the customer just hands over the plastic.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I'm all set to swipe on the back of the device.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Now, I just need you to sign with your finger, not your nail. Very good. And would you prefer an emailed or printed receipt?
KAUFMAN: There's no trek to the cash register and no line to wait in.
COLIN JOHNSON: We think the days of the big, clunky cash register that is really anchoring down a department are really going away.
KAUFMAN: That's Nordstrom's Colin Johnson.
JOHNSON: We're always going to have a place for the cash and we'll certainly take care of however the customer wants to pay. But we do see the future as essentially completely mobile.
KAUFMAN: Mobile payments certainly make shopping easier and customers like it, but retailers benefit too. When customers pay on the spot, they don't have time to change their mind and decide they don't really need what it is they're about to buy.
In addition to boosting sales, mobile technology is often less expensive than the old-fashioned kind. And industry experts, like Brian Brunk of Boston Retail Partners, note that removing cash registers frees up valuable real estate inside the store.
BRIAN BRUNK: There's not a retailer we talk to that isn't embracing at least a blended, if not an all-in approach to mobile point-of-sale.
KAUFMAN: But the changes taking place in retail, Brunk continues, go well beyond the simple, handheld device checkout.
BRUNK: You have to embrace the online - the digital world. And it's really now, how are you going to blend those two together? Because that's what the customer is really expecting.
KAUFMAN: Take inventory, for example. Here's Nordstrom's Colin Johnson.
JOHNSON: It wasn't all that long ago that it was viewed as almost charming that we would call around to different stores to try to find that item for you that happened to be out of stock. Those days are long gone. You've got to be rapid. You've got to be on the spot. You've got to have that information at your fingertips.
KAUFMAN: Or more precisely on the sales clerk's iPod.
AMIDY DOOLITTLE: I just had him order some shoes that weren't available in the store. He looked them up on his mobile device, and I paid sitting right here in my chair.
KAUFMAN: That's Amidy Doolittle. What's most remarkable about her purchase of glitter flats and grey suede shoes is this: The sales clerk had access to Nordstrom's entire company-wide inventory.
While that might sound pretty basic, Kasey Lobaugh, a retail expert at Deloitte Consulting, says some retailers have struggled to integrate inventories of in-store and online products. And Lobaugh says all too often, shoppers would be told we're out of stock, when, in fact, the retailer had the goods.
KASEY LOBAUGH: But then in addition to that, if you're able to fulfill the item from the place where the items are turning the slowest, you're able to decrease the markdowns that you have to take.
KAUFMAN: So, for example, winter jackets languishing in a Florida store could be quickly shipped to someone in Seattle and sold for full price. Still, another change under way is one you see all the time: shoppers with smartphones. Increasingly, they're checking out products and prices as they roam the aisles. Lobaugh says early on, some retailers weren't happy about the trend and weren't keen to embrace it.
LOBAUGH: Our data would say don't resist it. Give them the capability. Enable Wi-Fi in your store so that the consumer can access more information because the conversion rate goes up.
KAUFMAN: Translation: Smartphone-toting customers who do product research on the sales floor are much more likely to make a purchase. And Deloitte projects that by 2016, roughly one in five shoppers will be using their smartphone in just that way. Wendy Kaufman, NPR News, Seattle.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Technology is just a part of a bigger story we're focusing on this week, about how the shopping experience is evolving with brick-and-mortar retailers fighting for survival in an increasingly online marketplace. Starting tomorrow, the past, present and future of retail design.