You know the feeling: After spending an hour squeezing in and out of dresses in the fitting room -- or tolerating a long-winded lecture about flat-screen TVs -- you finally make your way to the cash register, only to find a long line of people waiting ahead of you.
Shoppers dread long checkout lines -- and so do retailers, so they are increasingly turning to tricked-out, high-tech devices that bust lines and save time.
Apple led the way with its specialty credit card-reading iPod Touches that enable payment anywhere in a store, and retail experts say that's only the beginning. Apple might soon one-up itself with new "wave-to-pay" Near Field Communication (NFC) technology, and industry watchers say big box retailers are preparing to usher in a new era of shopping that puts mobile technology at the center of a shopper's experience.
"One of the biggest challenges that traditional retail has is the fact that very little has changed inside the store compared to the dramatic changes that retail has seen on an online experience," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for The NPD Group, a New York research firm. "The store has to change the experience."
While those changes may come in different forms -- from devices that enable mobile checkouts to programs that roll credit cards, loyalty points and coupons into your cellphone -- Cohen said they'll start to emerge as experimental, progressive initiatives in the next year and graduate to an everyday self-checkout-like alternative in the next year-and-a-half to two years.
NFC Coming to Apple Stores This Week?
In the buildup to the 10-year anniversary of Apple's first retail store today, tech blogs speculated that the company might unveil a new NFC payment system in its nationwide stores.
Citing "multiple Apple sources," the tech blog Boy Genius Report said that, ahead of its big anniversary, the company required store employees to spend "overnights" in its retail locations, making all kinds of secret preparations, including installing tables with different wiring.
The blog said one possibility is NFC-enabled devices that can beam and receive information within a distance of up to 4 inches. Instead of swiping plastic to pay, customers could just wave an NFC-equipped phone near a compatible reader and the purchase amount would be deducted instantaneously.
"I think from a high-level perspective, it's just the next evolution for Apple," Jonathan Geller, the editor-in-chief and "boy genius" behind the blog, told ABCNews.com. "There's an ease of use factor and Apple loves to simplify things. ...In the competitive landscape, it is the next step."
While NFC-enabled Apple tables would need NFC-enabled iPhones and other i-devices to work, rumors earlier this year suggested a next-generation iPhone would come equipped with the technology. At the time, Apple declined to comment on those rumors and the company did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
But Geller said, "If anyone's going to do something big in retail, it's Apple." He said the company is preparing to make big changes in how customers experience its retail stores.
Though Apple's retail efforts still lead the pack, other national chains are starting to embrace mobile technology too.
By July, Nordstrom will have rolled out 5,000 to 6,000 mobile checkout devices to its 116 full-line stores across the country. Home Depot completed a similar $64 million initiative last fall, putting about 34,000 "First Phones" in its nearly 2,000 stores nationwide. The devices can help customers check out without ever going to the register, and they streamline in-store tasks to give sales associates more time to spend helping shoppers, the company said.
"For us it was a customer service play," said Michael Guhl, Home Depot's vice president of store and credit systems. "We believe our differentiator is customer service. We're trying to give our associates the tools they need to provide the best customer service to our customers."
Nordstrom spokesman Colin Johnson said his company's mobile efforts were launched to serve customers on their own terms.
"Customers have a broader definition of service. They have better tools, more info," said Johnson. "We're working hard to try to be more responsive to the customers who increasingly want to shop with their mobile device."
That may literally mean ringing up a sale while a customer is still wearing the suit. Johnson told of one woman who stopped by the store on the way to an interview. An associate used a mobile device to complete the sale while the in-store tailor marked up the suit -- all while it was still on the shopper.
Some Stop & Shop and Giant supermarkets in the Northeast are using a system called Scan It, which lets shoppers scan and bag their selections as they walk through the aisles, the Wall Street Journal reported this week. The device tracks and totals the shoppers' purchases and generates electronic coupons as they shop.
Dave Tallach, vice president of global product marketing for VeriFone, a company that provides mobile payment technology, said that in the next few months, even more retailers plan to bust long lines in their stores.
"It's definitely a trend that Apple created in trying to dissolve that old checkout experience where you queue up," he said. "The notion of turning the checkout into a one-on-one experience.... A lot of retailers want to pursue that use-case scenario."
That doesn't mean checkout lines will disappear entirely. In grocery stores, drug stores and other places where shoppers accumulate a deep basket of goods, he said, it makes sense to have a stationary cash register ring up the sales.
Still, Tallach said, for retailers focused on design or brand experiences, such as fashion or electronics stores, mobile checkout options mean that sales associates can sell shoppers a high-ticket item on the spot -- before they have a chance to change their minds.
But other analysts point out that, for customers, the benefits of new retail technology -- in particular NFC technology -- are not limited to the point of sale and payment.
New Retail Technology Isn't Just About Payment
Charles Golvin, an analyst for Forrester Research, said that in the past 50 years, there have been only three major payment innovations -- credit cards, debit cards and PayPal. To motivate consumers to change their payment habits, retailers need to deliver more value than just a new payment process itself.
But new developments in retail technology are poised to do just that, he said.
If you walk into a supermarket today, Golvin said, it takes multiple actions to verify your identity, pay for purchases, redeem coupons and loyalty points and receive a receipt.
New services, however, bundle all of those steps into your cellphone.
"Imagine that you walk up to the terminal and you wave your phone over the point-of-sale device, and all of that stuff happens in one transaction," he said. "Now you're talking about delivering."
Another potential scenario could be walking into a shopping center and, with a wave of your phone, alerting the stores to your presence to receive custom promotions based on your online and purchase history.
The industry will certainly have to address people's concerns about security, but NFC technology is said to be even more secure than the magnetic stripe on credit cards, he said.
"Clearly we're not going to leapfrog from today to that vision," Golvin said. "But that's kind of a snapshot of what NFC is going to enable."