Mars Wrigley's Transaction Zone

Mars Wrigley's Transaction Zone Team is working on the front end of the future.

The Future of Retail: Unpacking Innovative Front End Strategies

Ushering in a new vision for a key part of the supermarket
Bridget Goldschmidt
Managing Editor
Bridget Headshot

What immediately comes to mind when thinking about the front end are checkout lines, displays of candy and magazines, and grab-and-go refrigerated soft drinks, but are there any ways to enhance this experience in a new version of the front end? After all, it’s certainly ripe for change. “If you take a step back, the front end itself has looked the same for the last 75 years,” notes Mike Pedi, leader of Chicago-based Mars Wrigley’s U.S.-based Transaction Zone Team, which partners with retailers on a holistic approach to front end optimization. A rendering of the team's front end of the future is shown above. “You have traditional checkouts, you have customers that wait in line, you have product on the left, you have product on the right — it’s the perfect mousetrap.”

“The ideal supermarket front end is hassle-free, ensuring a frictionless checkout experience for shoppers and maximizing efficiency for retailers, while also balancing security and safety,” says Amit Acharya, director of product, self-checkout at Atlanta-based NCR Voyix, a provider of digital commerce solutions. “It’s crucial for stores to implement designs that evolve with the ever-changing retail landscape and facilitate change with minimal disruption to shoppers and the shopping environment.”

[Read more: "How Self-Checkout Is Adapting to Meet Customer, Retailer Needs"]

While acknowledging the importance of a seamless checkout process, Steven Duffy, SVP of design at Maitland, Fla.-based design firm Cuhaci Peterson, cautions that “not all shoppers are looking to breeze in and out frictionlessly. While consumer appetites have grown to become less tolerant of waiting in line, some (more senior) shoppers seek the social interaction of the checkout process. Grocers must also account for loss prevention and shrink technologies when enabling frictionless front ends.”

Another challenge is making sure that everyone’s requirements are met. “If you think about the front end, first and foremost, you have to think about solving the needs of all key stakeholders — shopper, merchant and operator — and those needs could be fundamentally different for every retailer,” observes Pedi.

Duffy agrees with this view, noting: “Optimized examples depend on format and are also commensurate with the retailers’ DNA. Are they a value operator, middle of the road or more of a premium brand?”

That said, asked to provide a particular example of an optimized front end, Pedi points to a retailer whose self-checkout configuration “was creating a lot of friction and a lot of bottlenecks. We ended up removing some self-checkouts, but we located them all together to really lessen those bottlenecks. The key metrics were a decrease in wait time, an increase in impulse sales and then also a decrease in the average number of shoppers waiting in line. … . We [additionally] wanted to make sure that we didn’t have a ton of inventory, … so we actually reduced the overall assortment but were able to sell more.”

Acharya similarly believes that a grocery operator’s approach to checkout is crucial to a reimagined front end. “With a ‘right-sized’ checkout strategy, NCR Voyix’s retailers are seeing a 20% reduction in checkout footprint required, and a 25%-30% decrease in labor checkout spend,” he notes. “Reinvesting those savings enables retailers to offer enhanced services such as online picking, order fulfillment, personal shoppers, etc., that improve the customer experience.”

Market 32Price Chopper
While at Market 32/Price Chopper, Cuhaci Peterson's Steven Duffy led design and development efforts for the retailer's Market Bistro concept, which included an optimized front end.

Impulse Power

While improving the flow of the department, how can retailers boost impulse purchases at the front end? Not surprisingly, confection powerhouse Mars Wrigley has been concentrating on this issue for some time.

“As the front end evolves and technology becomes more prevalent, wait time is eliminated,” says Pedi. “Wait time is a huge component of driving impulse conversion. If you’re waiting, you’re more likely to pick up impulse. Now wait time is gone. One of the first things that we needed to understand was how do you drive conversion in a no-wait environment and do it in a way that does not create friction for the shopper? … We did a lot of work around it, and ultimately, we found that conversion is a function of footfall and noticeability — just because shoppers walk by a product doesn’t necessarily mean that they see it. So it’s the right product, the right place, but also some form of engagement that actually drives that noticeability — easier said than done.”

[Read more: "3 Ways Grocers Can Provide Stronger Customer Engagement"]

To get consumers to pay attention, Mars Wrigley came up with its own proprietary experience system. “Fixtures need to do more than just sell product, they need to help guide shoppers,” explains Pedi. “Our notion is, if there’s no wait time, then we have to create dwell time, and they are two fundamentally different things. Wait time is a function of an inefficient process. Dwell is something to create that is extending your shopping trip, and where you do that and how you do that is going to be whether you do or do not drive conversion.”

Subsequently, the company has developed “a base build system and a gondola system [that are] extremely flexible, versatile and nimble in the sense of [they] can morph into many different things to meet the unique challenges of that retailer,” he says. “If you start with just the base build system as an example, it’s all component based, it can go up, it can go down, [change] color, size, height.” Both types of units are set to roll out to retail starting in the first quarter of 2024.

“As part of an overall checkout redesign, retailers are actively leveraging opportunities for impulse purchases,” asserts Acharya. “These can take the form of impulse merchandise placed as part of queue management within the checkout area. With increasing forms of checkout options, such as a scan-and-go via mobile app, retailers have more opportunities to personalize the experience within the app, and to activate impulse purchases within the aisle or when the shopper approaches the checkout front end.”

He adds: “With the evolution of digital media, retailers have more opportunities to contextualize and nurture impulse merchandise in the aisle and near checkout based on real-time foot traffic insights.”

According to Duffy: “Savvy retailers seek to secure that last sale in line with well-curated impulse items, typically composed by a visual merchandiser. Grocers should consider using displays that illuminate and highlight specialty or must-have items, and products should also be a mix of seasonal or local offers.”

Getting shoppers to really notice the products featured in the front end can also give rise to opportunities for nontraditional items beyond the usual candy, snacks, magazines and soft drinks.

“It’s creating a merchandising solution ahead of the checkout, but then it’s also creating this notion of dwell, that shoppers are willing to trade off their time to extend their shopping trip, and that is where other categories outside of your typical impulse play a role, because just a standard impulse item is not going to create that dwell,” says Pedi. “What you need to do is bring something over, whether it be promotional related, or whatever fits that retailer strategy, but something that’s unique, special and different that brings people in once they’re there.”

Picking up on a recent trend among some wellness-oriented grocers, Acharya notes: “In terms of nontraditional products, retail strategies can vary based on a retailer’s corporate strategy, shopper journey or partnership with CPG companies, with retailers providing ‘healthier’ options for impulse purchases, in addition to or instead of traditional products.”

He also believes that “[d]igital media, in the form of large screens within the aisle or near checkout, can … help with marketing for seasonal items, and awareness triggering for impulse offers that may not immediately convert into an upsell, but play a key role in driving future sales.”

self-checkout strategy
A "right-sized" checkout strategy can lead to a reduction in the checkout footprint required and a decrease in the labor checkout spend.

Starting With the Shopper

These changes in the front end are happening now, but there’s still more to come.

“The future front end is founded on well-established consumer behaviors and convergence of advancing technologies, delivering on the need for convenience through speed (no friction), yet interactive based upon customer desire for service and engagement,” says Duffy. “Buy online, pick up in store (BOPIS) and other online services will be enhanced via front end integration of smart technologies, e.g., carts, AR, etc.”   

“Within the near future, stores will have a blend of ‘hybrid frictionless’ experiences that will include all shopper journeys, personalized to individual shoppers,” predicts Acharya. “Stores will digitize further, offering various technologies to enhance the purchase experience and increase non-inventory revenues. Automation, item recognition, biometrics for loyalty and payments, and tech including robotics in online fulfillment will reshape store layouts, adapting to drive more efficiency, productivity and shopper delight. Retailers will continue to experiment with various advancements in technology to solve every friction point in the shopper and attendant journey, while de-risking their investments with experimentation.”

For his part, Pedi says that any front end evolution “will start with the shopper, so what the shoppers themselves are specifically looking for — they don’t want friction, they want choice, and they want to be able to get in and out as quickly as possible. That will hold true now and into the future. They also want a reason to go to retail from an experiential standpoint.”

Despite that influx of new technology, he doesn’t think the advancements will “be necessarily visible to shoppers, because where [companies are] focusing on is how [to] create the technology platform that connects the entire store that allows us to do things faster, more efficiently.”

He believes that in 10 years’ time, however, “some form of seamless or just-walk-out technology will have figured out a way to get scalable and cost-effective for a retailer that doesn’t require them to go back and actually redo everything in their store to be able to achieve it.” 

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