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Associated Press photos
An iPod Touch is used to scan a product code. More retailers are abandoning the ubiquitous cash resister in place of the mobility and convenience of inexpensive smartphones.

Cash register nears day of obsolescence

A clerk at Barney’s New York rings up a sale with an Apple iPod. More stores are warming to smartphones and tablet computers.

– Ka-ching! The cash register may be on its final sale.

Stores across the country are ditching the old-fashioned, clunky machines and having salespeople – and even shoppers themselves – ring up sales on smartphones and tablet computers.

Barneys New York, a luxury retailer, this year plans to use iPads or iPod Touch devices for credit and debit card purchases in seven of its nearly two dozen regular-price stores. Urban Outfitters, a teen clothing chain, ordered its last traditional register last fall and plans to go totally mobile one day. And Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, is testing a “Scan & Go” app that lets customers scan their items as they shop.

“The traditional cash register is heading toward obsolescence,” said Danielle Vitale, chief operating officer of Barneys New York.

That the cash register is getting the boot is no surprise. The writing has been on the wall for a long time for the iconic machine, which was created in the late 1800s. The register was essential in nearly every retail location by the early 1900s, but it now is in a world in which smartphones and tablets increasingly are replacing items such as books, ATMs and cameras.

Stores like smartphones and tablets because they take up less floor space than registers and free up cashiers to help customers instead of being tethered to one spot. They also are cheaper: Apple Inc.’s iPads with accessories like credit card readers can cost a store $1,500, compared with $4,000 for a register. And Americans increasingly want the same speedy service in physical stores that they get from shopping online.

J.C. Penney, a midprice department-store chain, said the response by customers has been great since it started rolling out iPod Touch devices late last year in its 1,100 stores. The goal is to have one in the hands of every salesperson by May. The company said that about a quarter of purchases at its stores nationwide now come from an iPod Touch.

On a recent Thursday afternoon at a Penney store in the Manhattan borough of New York City, Debbie Guastella, 55, marveled after a saleswoman rang up three shirts she was buying on an iPod Touch.

“I think it’s great,” said Guastella, who lives in Huntington, N.Y. “The faster the better.”

It’s been a long fall for the cash register, which innovated retail as we know it. The first register was invented after the Civil War by a little known saloon owner. Before then, most store owners were in the dark about whether they were making a profit, and many suffered since it was easy for sales clerks to steal from the cash drawer unnoticed. But by 1915, cash registers were ubiquitous in stores across the country, with more than 1.5 million sold by then.

Not every retailer is quick to ditch registers, though. After all, there are still logistics to figure out. For instance, most retailers don’t accept cash payments on mobile devices. But if they start to do so, where will they put the cash that would normally go into a register?

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