From the December 2000 issue of Startups

You've selected the perfect Cabernet for your date, who will be at your apartment in 15 minutes-and you'd sure like to buy it, if it weren't for the cashier who's chatting with the woman who just spent five minutes locating her ATM card and now can't swipe it correctly. Enter U-Scan Express, an automated self-checkout system that allows shoppers to scan, purchase and bag goods, minus the cashier. Buy alcohol, cigarettes or other restricted items, and U-Scan, masterminded by Optimal Robotics Corp. in Montreal, will prompt a clerk to check ID. Finally, we're entering Jetsons territory.

Now before you jump to "This will steal people's jobs!" conclusions, let CEO Neil Wechsler, 34, explain. "There's 4 percent unemployment, and retailers just can't find labor," he says. "And when you ask consumers what the worst part of their experience in a retail establishment is, they say 'getting out of there.' " As far as reaction from unions, Wechsler's heard nary a peep.

To date, about 650 U-Scan Express systems in 32 states are found in chains like Kroger, Meijer and Wal-Mart-numbers that should boost Optimal Robotics' sales of $28 million last year to $50 million by year-end. U-Scan terminals, which look like arcade change machines-but with a bill slot, receipt dispenser, touch-screen monitor, scale and several open-bag dispensers-carried out 45 million transactions in 1999. It also carries an overhead video camera and a scale underneath the bags (sensitive to a hundredth of a pound).

Multifaceted tech giant NCR did introduce a competing product in 1997, but Optimal Robotics, which started in 1991 by designing point-of-sale checkout systems, introduced U-Scan in 1995 and prospered from two years of relationship-building. Wechsler says the company's present focus on self-checkout-along with the introduction of the U-Scan Carousel for large orders and, eventually, "big-box" solutions for home-improvement and toy stores-will keep it at the forefront. Says Wechsler, "We've really just started to scratch the surface."


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