Is the elimination of payment Apple’s next retail revolution?

Paying for something is still the one part of Apple’s (s aapl) retail experience that isn’t ideal. You don’t have to line up at a cash register, but you do have to find someone free and able to handle your transaction, who’s also qualified to carry around one of those portable iPod-based point-of-sale terminals. But Apple may be on the verge of taking the pain of paying out of the Apple Store equation entirely.

On Tuesday, BGR reported that Apple will be introducing a new iOS retail store app, and this new app will allow for online ordering with in-store pick up, and also for customer self-checkout for some items. Both would represent major steps toward minimizing or eliminating the hassle of paying for goods at brick-and-mortar retail locations, making for an Apple shopping experience that makes actually buying things almost as painless as window shopping.

A shift more dramatic in concept than in practice

The process for self-checkout seems a little sci-fi as reported by BGR’s sources: Apparently, you’ll scan items using your iOS device’s camera, then click purchase, whereupon your Apple ID (and associated payment method) is charged, after which you can walk out with the product.

But though it seems far-fetched, other companies are already attempting similar things, including PayPal (s ebay) and AisleBuyer. Also, it isn’t too different from the system in place now: Associates often let you leave with product in hand, maybe with a paper receipt but often not, and sometimes with a small sticker indicating you paid. I always feel like I’m getting away with something when I leave an Apple Store even now.

For larger items, you’ll be able to buy in advance, and either pick up the item within 12 minutes if it’s in stock, or have it shipped free to a store if not. Retail locations will also reportedly gain the ability to receive custom-configured Macs shipped to store, which will finally remove one of the biggest barriers tweak-happy consumers like myself encounter when trying to use them. Again, this is a small difference from what’s currently on offer, but could do much to change the perception of Apple retail for consumers who have traditionally avoided storefronts.

Not the first; hasn’t stopped Apple before

Other companies have done ship-to-store before. Best Buy (s bby) and The Source here in Canada have both offered those options for quite a while now. But as Apple has proven time and time again, the difference between offering something and getting it exactly right can also be the difference between failure and runaway success. In my experience of ship-to-store programs offered by other retailers, I’ve never had the process go entirely smoothly, and service in practice always differed from what was advertised.

If Apple can pull off what this report says it will attempt, it will be bridging the gap between online sales and brick-and-mortar retail in a real and lasting way that should benefit both sides of the business. Customers who once avoided retail sales will use them for the sake of convenience (in-store pickup eliminates the need to be home to receive a package), and retail customers will encounter less frustration with finding an available sales associate or navigating Apple’s sometimes inconvenient distributed checkout system.

Products, not sales, taken to the extreme

Finally, these advances would bring the Apple Store a little more in line with Steve Jobs’ vision of the perfect retail experience. Store space could be given over almost entirely to hands-on product demo and samples, and to Genius Bar tech support and setup assistance.

Apple once revolutionized retail by replacing the focus on sales and inventory with emphasis on product knowledge and sales associates who behave more like tour guides than confidence men cruising for marks. Now, it could do so all over again by taking transactions off of the retail floor altogether, and leaving just products and first-hand experience of the same by curious customers.