Eng. 216 Syllabus
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Evolution of the Checkout
Living in a fast-paced society that’s becoming more streamlined by the day, we tend to take many modern conveniences for granted. Throughout my lifetime, new technologies have been applied to checkouts and payment methods to make these processes faster, more convenient and more secure. For my photo essay, I decided to look at the payment methods of today and comment on the past, present, and future of each.

Sawyer Weir uses his debit card at Food Lion.
In our society, electronic payment methods have become the standard for many reasons, the most important of which being our security. Although having credit and debit cards at our disposal requires us to be more responsible with our spending, it’s nearly impossible to justify carrying around significant amounts of cash in this day and age. Let’s face it, many of us will have to deal with a lost or stolen wallet at some point in our lives, and if someone finds or steals a wallet loaded with cash, chances are you just treated that person to a night out on the town. If that same person gets a hold of my debit or credit card, they may be lucky enough to get away with a small shopping spree before I find out and cancel my cards, but as long as I call my bank and credit company to report this theft I won’t be held responsible for the unauthorized charges. In terms of buyer protection, most major credit cards also offer benefits such as extended warranties and theft insurance. For example, whenever I buy major electronics with my JetBlue card, American Express tacks an extra year of warranty onto the product and insures it against theft for 30 days. Another benefit of credit cards is that they offer cash back, airline mileage, free gas, or points toward a rewards program. If you’re not earning any rewards from your credit card purchases, take a look at http://www.bankaholic.com/credit-cards/ and see what kind of bonuses you’re missing out on.

For years now, the paper check has been on a rapid decline in terms of bill payment and point of sale transactions, and is being replaced by a variety of electronically processed payment methods. This shift is beneficial to financial institutions as well as Joe Consumer, who can use new payment technologies to save time and effort. For banks, processing checks is far more costly than processing electronic payments, which should explain why we are constantly being persuaded to use credit or debit cards at checkouts and pay bills via online or telephone banking. Presumably, this is one of the main reasons why the University of Richmond now requires its students to pay for their education through its e-billing system.

As far as retail stores are concerned, the check is a dead technology. In this 2003 commercial for the Visa Check Card, Yao Ming learns this lesson the hard way.

"UR Ready..." (more like UR Required)
Getting fined for ridiculous reasons gives me a chance to break out the old checkbook.

Another evolving technology in the world of checkouts is the gift certificate. The last time I either bought or received a paper gift certificate (other than from a small family-owned business) has to be at least five years ago. The gift cards of today, which are electronically processed via a barcode or magnetic strip, have numerous advantages over their paper counterparts. First of all, gift card owners do not have to worry about their card being destroyed by water or ripped apart. In many cases, companies will also protect the value of lost or missing gift cards, since balances are most often saved in an external database and linked a card’s identification number as opposed to being stored on the card itself. In the interest of the vendor, gift cards are not activated until they are sold, which protects them against theft and allows an infinite supply to be mass produced. Also, most businesses opt to sell one generic card which customers can load with a balance of their choice and reload at any time. A few years ago, credit card companies picked up on the profitability of gift cards and began offering their own universal prepaid cards, which are now extremely popular.
At Starbucks.com, you can "reload your card and register it to protect its balance."

One of the new emerging technologies in this field is contactless payment. Contactless payment systems incorporate RFID technology into credit cards, key fobs, smartcards, or other small devices that can be waved in front of a reader at the point of sale as an alternative to scanning a card. The purpose of integrating these small chips and antennae into these devices is to speed up and simplify the checkout process. Over the last few years, we’ve seen large retailers and credit card companies form partnerships to offer various methods of contactless payment, most of which have been widely successful and continue to spread to different markets in the US. In 1997, Exxon-Mobil became one of the pioneers in RFID payment systems when it introduced its Speedpass in an extremely successful nationwide trial. American Express followed suit with its ExpressPay technology, which can be used at a growing list of retailers including Meijer, CVS, Chevron, Office Depot and McDonald’s. Along the same lines as ExpressPay are Mastercard’s PayPass, JPMorgan Chase’s Blink and Visa Contactless.

Despite the growing popularity of contactless payment, I remain wary of this technology due to recent security concerns. Although companies have assured customers that they are protected against such vulnerabilities, I really don’t mind taking an extra 20 seconds to swipe my credit card rather than wave it at a sensor, so I think I’ll wait a few years to give RFID payment a shot.
All pumps at Exxon-Mobil stations are Speedpass-enabled.

Sheetz checkouts are compatible with four forms of contactless payment.

After exploring payment methods of the past and present, I am left to envision what kinds of technology will aid our checkout processes in the future.
Many businesses, such as our own Weinstein Center, still maintain a "cash only" policy.
  • Contactless payment will achieve widespread availability and eventually eliminate the need for credit cards altogether. AT&T, Nokia, Visa and Mastercard (as well as others, I’m sure) are already working to build contactless payment into our cell phones.
  • Self-checkouts will become more sophisticated and will be available in more grocery stores.
  • Cash will always have a place in our society, but some of our coins will fade into obscurity as they become too costly to produce.