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Michael Baker
Smarter Writer

Michael Baker is a retail consultant and vice-chair of the ICSC's Asia-Pacific Research Council

Michael Baker
Smarter Writer

Michael Baker is a retail consultant and vice-chair of the ICSC's Asia-Pacific Research Council

When people think about technology and the shopping experience it’s common to focus on the ‘wow’ factor of technology as entertainment.

There is a more prosaic and arguably much more valuable contribution technology can make to shopping: that’s to take away some of the pain and inconvenience of it so people can focus on what they really enjoy about shopping as a social and recreational event. One of the biggest pains of all is to wait in a checkout line. Many retailers have exerted themselves to rectify this – in bigger stores they are trying to keep more checkouts open, bring in more self-checkouts and generally be more responsive when lines begin forming.

With fresh low-tech approaches seemingly exhausted, the heavy artillery is now being wheeled out in the form of higher-tech solutions. Several recent innovations by high-profile retailers reflect the increasing momentum behind technological fixes for the vexing wait-line problem.

woman at checkout of grocery store

Getting through the checkout

Panera Bread is a US ‘fast casual’ dining chain with an emphasis on high-quality bakery products. It has around 1800 stores and an unwelcome reputation for long queues. Rather than taking the conventional approach of increasing the number of cashier staff to reduce wait-times, Panera Bread is cutting them by approximately half and nudging customers toward a combination of technology solutions for placing their orders: in-store kiosks, mobile app or online ordering. The company believes this approach will not only reduce the wait but also improve the accuracy of order fulfilment. As Panera’s clientele tend to be fairly well-heeled and tech-savvy, the shift may be welcomed by many customers provided the logistics can be made to work smoothly.

While Panera Bread's solution might be thought of as 'medium-tech', a second innovation goes to a much higher technology level. It's the introduction by Kroger – a US supermarket chain with almost $100 billion in sales in 2013 – of a system called QueVision, which has now been installed in its 2400 stores.

The company claims that average checkout times have been reduced from four minutes to under 30 seconds with this new system, which uses sensors to count people entering the supermarket and also the number of people waiting at the checkouts. QueVision continuously grinds through an algorithm based on the people counts, current staffing, store configuration and historical transaction data to keep the store manager informed as to how many checkout lanes should be kept open. Meanwhile, wait times are shown on digital screens so that the customers themselves are kept apprised.

Average checkout times have been reduced from four minutes to under 30 seconds with this new system, which uses sensors to count people entering the supermarket.

- MICHAEL BAKER, RETAIL EXPERT

"In and out" technology

If you are sceptical that this is the right way to go to improve checkout times then perhaps Walmart’s UK chain, Asda, has something more to your taste. Asda is trialling a ‘rapid scan’ conveyor belt. Customers place their items on the belt and it runs them through a scanner equipped with laser technology that is able to read about 100 barcodes a minute from any direction, so no worries if an item’s barcode is face down on the belt. The only snag in this operation is with fruit and vegetables, which require the customer to bag, weigh and stick on a barcode before running them through the scanner.

Sometimes, older is better

Each of these solutions is attempting to fix a serious issue people have with shopping in the traditional physical store. All are undoubtedly intermediate steps along the way toward even more efficient technologies that will gradually eliminate human checkout personnel.

Some are grumbling about using technological wizardry to try to solve problems that might better be addressed in more old-fashioned ways. For example, just using a single queue can be a highly efficient means of distributing customers among checkout registers. The shopper doesn't need to go through the painful process of gazing across a vast checkout area trying to assess the number of people in each lane and how full each cart is before committing. This system works well in any kind of busy store, not just a supermarket.

The verdict

The complaint about using advanced technology is that it covers up inadequacies in staff hiring practices and training. The problem will take care of itself if better people are employed, the argument goes. There is a good deal of truth in this, but we have been railing against poor checkout experiences in department stores, supermarkets and other retail establishments for a very long time now. Despite improvements in some stores, the needle has not moved far enough to satisfy increasingly impatient and demanding customers. It’s time to see what technology can do.

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