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Checking Out Checkout Innovation


The big news about paying for store-bought groceries is Amazon’s no-checkout store that handles transactions automatically via a mobile app. Before pondering the obvious benefits, it’s instructive to examine how the industry arrived at this innovation designed to appeal to shoppers who have better things to do than stand in a checkout line.  

Over the years, the checkout lane and payment process have seen a blend of new technology and shopper frustration. Nearly nine of 10 U.S. adults want their store checkout experience to be faster, according to a study conducted online last year by Harris Poll. I suspect the survey would have generated the same results if conducted every year for decades.

How has the grocery industry responded? Improved scanners certainly have made checking out more efficient and accurate. But the most dramatic change came about 15 years ago with the debut of self-checkout terminals. Shoppers could scan the barcodes on their products, bag their groceries and get out the door quickly. Grocers could get labor savings by reducing the number of cashiers.

Unfortunately, this innovation has produced mixed results. Some shoppers with only a few items loved these terminals, while others found the units to be user-unfriendly: They didn’t function properly, scanning produce was laborious, and the terminals intimated older shoppers.

Shopper frustration has led to some chains removing the self-checkout terminals and replacing them with cashiers. The most recent company to do so is Albertsons Cos., which has removed the units from most stores.

Along the way, grocers have been deploying creative solutions to improve checkout efficiency and speed. For example: 

  • A Hy-Vee supermarket in Papillion, Neb., is piloting a new system called Feloh, from IndaFlow, that uses colored indicator lights at each checkout counter to show shoppers which lines are moving fastest.
  • At its 55,000-square-foot store in Cold Spring, Ky., Kroger offers shoppers the Scan, Bag, Go system. Shoppers can use a hand-held device while shopping. They scan and bag groceries while walking throughout the store. When finished, they scan a special barcode on a terminal at the front of the store that transfers their order to the checkout. The process saves time and reduces checkout lines.   
  • According to a recent report in USA Today, two big supermarket chains – Kroger and Food Lion – have added the word “about” to their signs in the Express Lane in several hundred stores. Shoppers can check out “about 15 items” in Kroger and “about 12 items” in Food Lion when using the Express Lane. 

The last example doesn't involve new technology, but it clearly underscores that grocers continue to tinker with checkout lines to improve flow through.

And that brings us to Amazon. Upon entering the 1,800-square-foot test store in Seattle, shoppers, who are now restricted to Amazon employees, check in by scanning a barcode on a dedicated mobile app. They shop as normal and “just walk out” when finished. Their Amazon account is automatically charged for the groceries.     

Cool technology, right? Yes. Will everyday folks love it? Maybe. This seems like one of those technology innovations that shoppers need without knowing they want it. If Amazon deploys such a system in its 20 brick-and-mortar grocery stores reportedly planned during the next two years, and if other chains adopt similar technology, we'll find out how successful it will be.

Will there be glitches? There always are. Will some shoppers love this “convenience,” and other hate it? You bet. Will it be a long time before such technology is commonplace in grocery stores? Yes, and maybe never.

Innovative technology benefits everyone when it's convenient in the real world, works well, and doesn’t cost too much to install. Good luck, Amazon.       

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