The End of the Cash Register? Urban Outfitters Will Ring You Up With iPads

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Free People store, via URBN

In a presentation on its first-ever annual analyst day today, Urban Outfitters made an announcement: The chain, CIO Calvin Hollinger said, will switch from cash registers to Apple products.

"Sales people will have iPod touches," Joe Weistenthal reports, "and cash registers are being phased out in favor of iPads on a swivel."

The move makes sense. There's the cool factor of the Apple products, for one thing -- something of which the chain is no doubt conscious. But there's also the fact that iPads, per Hollinger, cost about a fifth of the price of cash registers. Replacing damaged or broken devices is presumably much easier when those devices are widely available consumer products. Plus, the flexibility of the iPad-plus-swivel design allows customers actually to see the screen that's conveying their transaction -- which doesn't just help with transparency, but which also, Weisenthal points out, allows customers to input their own information. (That will be particularly helpful given stores' increasing reliance on customers' email addresses for receipt-sending, discount-announcing, and the like.) 

It also means, of course, that store workers can be relatively mobile, allowing a point of purchase to be ... pretty much any point in the store. The iPods, for their part, will be used not only for sales and returns, but also for worker-side activities like retagging items and taking inventory.  

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URBN, Inc.,Urban Outfitters' parent company, also owns Anthropologie, Free People, Terrain, and BHLDN -- so there's a good chance those establishments will be trying similar experiments with mobile checkout. (Actually, there's a very good chance: see the Anthropologie-focused checkout app and the Free People store pictured above.) As URBN's most recent annual report put it,

We create a unified environment in our stores that establishes an emotional bond with the customer. Every element of the environment is tailored to the aesthetic preferences of our target customers. Through creative design, much of the existing retail space is modified to incorporate a mosaic of fixtures, finishes and revealed architectural details. In our stores, merchandise is integrated into a variety of creative vignettes and displays designed to offer our customers an entire look at a distinct lifestyle. This dynamic visual merchandising and display technique provides the connection among the store design, the merchandise and the customer. Essential components of the ambiance of each store may include playing music that appeals to our target customers, using unique signage and employing a staff that understands and identifies with the target customer.

Apple products, given the cachet they're enjoying at the moment, fit right in with that overall aesthetic. And that aesthetic, of course -- creative, friendly, fun -- is what many retail outlets, from Target to Trader Joe's, are aiming for in their store design. Given that, we can probably expect to see Urban Outfitters' move to mobile becoming a more widespread phenomenon. iPads and iPods as checkout tools may prove to be that rare thing for retail stores: objects that are practical and brand-building at the same time.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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