Is retail’s future shops without tills?

PayPal Local is another example of a payment system that doesn't need you to go to a payment point. Could mobile phones reshape the way we design stores?

Are we making the same mistake again and again? Do we always start by using new technology to replicate the old way of working, before finally moving onto the possibilities for change that it offers?

This question has been playing on my mind since a chat with David Marcus the president of Paypal earlier in the week. He invited a group of bloggers to interview him after his talk at Le Web. One of our number asked him about near field communication – NFC – the tech that allows phones to talk to device right next to them, especially for payments. He argued that it was a “solution in search of a problem”.

He had a good reason for it – he was talking about the PayPal mobile app’s new function that allows you to “check in” to locations, appear on the store’s point of sales systems, and pay from your mobile. You can see a demo of it by Glenn Lesanto on Orange’s business blog. It, in effect, removes the need for the customer to walk over to a till, or payment terminal. They can pay from anywhere in the store (or parking lot). It’s a system reminiscent of Apple’s EasyPay, but which usually requires some form of interaction with the staff. IN short, it’s doing something different from the way that payment systems have traditionally worked. You’re not longer tied to a location, or to a credit card device owned by the store. You can pay from your mobile. anywhere.

Some were sceptical of his reason for approaching shop payments this way, but I follow his reasoning exactly. NFC just adds a new twist to the traditional experience. Instead of walking over to a till and paying cash or swiping a card, you tap a phone. It’s the same experience, recast with new technology. PayPal Local, on the other hand, is rethinking the payment process based on possession of a connected device – and pushing beyond it with the ability to let retailers know that you’re in the store. For example, f you’re in a restaurant, checking in will bring up the menu. In a coffee shop, the barista will greet you by name. It becomes a facilitators of a relationship between the customer and the shop.

NFC reminds me of a quote from Craig Mod’s excellent piece Subcompact Publishing:

Business skeuomorphism happens when we take business decisions explicitly tied to one medium, and bring them to another medium — no questions asked.

NFC is taking both the physical and business process and recreating it on a new device. Perhaps we should be thinking more creatively about how payment processes – and our shops – can be rethought now we all have this little pocket payment machines with us.

Of course, it’ll be interesting to see how many retailers adopt it when it arrives in Europe in the coming weeks. There’s a comfortable familiarity to existing payment mechanisms, which is the reason we keep reinventing them in the same form. Will shop owners be comfortable with so flexible and less formal payment models? PayPal is gambling so, and Apple has proved the potential. Maybe in 10 years, the till will be a thing of the past…