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Speedy checkout wins retail technology of the year

April 10, 2014

While the bigger retail technology buzz last year went to data tracking devices, augmented reality and drones, the top retail innovation in InformationWeek's Elite 100 went to Kroger Co.'s QueVision system that ensures customers never have more than one person in line ahead of them.

In fact, the system landed third on the list of the top business technology innovators in the U.S. across industries. Now in more than 2,400 stores, QueVision has reduced checkout times on average from four minutes to less than 30 seconds.

"Every day, we are returning precious minutes to our time-strapped customers by shortening the time they wait to check out," said Marnette Perry, Kroger's SVP of strategic initiatives and operations, in a statement.

According to a profile in InformationWeek, QueVision uses infrared sensors to count customers entering the store and at checkout lanes. Combining those counts with factors such as store layout, staffing levels for cashiers and baggers, and historical transaction logs, store managers use a simulator to access the number of registers that need to be open in real time. Estimates are also made on how many should be open in 15 and 30 minutes.

A large part of the system's success is being attributed to a suggestion by a store manager to put wait-time data on screens for both employees and customers to see. The information was initially intended to only be seen by employees and managers via handhelds.

Customer satisfaction has not unsurprisingly improved with shorter lines. But a surprise benefit is that associates are happier because customers are happier. Kroger's companywide cashier-friendliness metric, measured in customer surveys, has improved 24 percent since 2011, according to InformationWeek.

Other emerging technology solutions for checkouts include scanning tunnels. Conveyor scanners, recently introduced by Walmart's British Asda chain, reportedly read from 360 degrees, even if the barcode is flat, at a rate of 100/minute. Shopper self-scanning stations have been around for nearly a decade although they aren't especially quick.

A popular non-technology option for speed is the single queue, used by Trader Joe's and Whole Foods among others. What appeals to people are: fewer delays from slow customers, eliminating guesswork when selecting a line, personal service and less reliance on DIY.

While not uncommon, Apple and some other stores enable employees to check out customers with handheld devices. Enabling shoppers to scan and check out themselves has been hyped but remains largely in test mode.

Discussion Questions:

Is retail's best answer to the problem of slow checkouts a data analytics simulation system such as that used by Kroger or something else? How confident are you that mobile checkouts, whether via associates or customers, will be a game changer at retail?

While we value unfettered opinion, we urge you to show respect and courtesy for people or companies about whom you comment. Keep in mind that this is a public, professional business discussion. RetailWire reserves the right to edit or refuse the publication of remarks that we deem unsuitable. We may also correct for unintended spelling and grammatical errors.

Instant Poll:

What's the likelihood that mobile checkouts, whether via associates or customers, will become ubiquitous in retail stores over the next five years?

Comments:

It's one of the most important pieces of the customer/shopper satisfaction puzzle. You can have all the technology in the world throughout the store, but when your shopping is complete, the last thing you want to do is wait on line to pay. Nothing leaves a bad taste in your mouth like slow check out. Is it the best system? I'll leave that up to the list makers but for my money, get me through the line fast!

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Zel Bianco, President, founder and CEO, Interactive Edge

Right. KillerApp: The truly EZ self-checkout. We aren't there yet, this is an interim step.

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Liz Crawford, VP, Strategy & Insights, Match Drive

Kroger is in a class by themselves. They have a comprehensive lab that partners with vendors to create new and interesting software and hardware solutions. Their recently announced Retail Site Intelligence brings data from many in-store systems together for analysis. Pulling data from multiple sensors is the way forward.

Eventually mobile self-checkout will be another option for loyal grocery customers. BYOD makes perfect sense in that scenario, and I bet many customers would even be willing to pay a loyalty club fee to participate.

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David Dorf, Sr. Director of Technology Strategy, Oracle Retail

This kind of thing makes me cringe. Here's the end story; when I go to Whole Foods I am in and out in 15 minutes in most cases. I go to Kroger and other traditional grocers and the simplest purchase can take twice as long. Why is that? Does Whole Foods use uber-technology? No. Why are they faster? Simple answer: they have better people. Managers and staff - better.

Sure, the technology is going to help, but if Kroger's associates were worth their salt (including the managers who should be able to tell by LOOKING when their stores are busier, or by simply reading the reams of history in their sales data!), they wouldn't need to make that expensive purchase. How much is the implementation of that system to 2400 stores going to cost, anyway?

The real question is: do you invest in robots or people? What can you say, Kroger likes robots.

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Lee Peterson, EVP Creative Services, WD Partners

It is not surprising that a technology that gets me out of the store faster would improve the satisfaction of the customers and the clerks. For the customer, when they approach the checkout area they are already moving to the next thing on their mental to-do list. They see themselves out of the store moving to the next item on their mental to-do list.

Moving to a checkout system that becomes more a part of the purchase process would be a more ideal solution. That being said, some customers would still prefer that a clerk handle the recording of the sale. In a supermarket the ultimate might be a process using RFID tags so that when the basket is either totaled before reaching checkout, or at the checkout lane. Even this does not address the bagging of the product process, which is the bulk of the time spent checking out.

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Steve Montgomery, President, b2b Solutions, LLC

This article has some great examples of how to address one of the top customer service attributes of shopping, namely speedy checkout. In terms of technology, the British food retailers are currently ahead of their American counterparts. Besides Asda, Morrisons has a very efficient and effective queuing system.

Don't forget low tech, such as that employed by Whole Foods and Trader Joe's. In addition, how about a combination of low and high tech? Use information from frequent shopper cards and offer dedicated checkout lines for high spenders, like the airlines do for their frequent flyers.

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Richard J. George, Ph.D., Professor of Food Marketing, Haub School of Business, Saint Joseph's University

I strongly agree with Lee Peterson. Human observation is too undervalued and underutilized. Dependence on technology is overrated.

'RetailRetell'

This actually made me laugh. I may be old school, but we had this 30 years ago when I was working in retail for a major chain - we called it a "store manager" and it was a real person who made sure the scheduling was correct for cashiers and supplemented it from the floor as needed. Trust me, as a regular Kroger shopper (no other choice in my market) this technology isn't all it is made out to be.

Andy Casey, Senior Partner, Loyalty Resources

This is clearly a winner as it puts the customer first. No one is going to complain about a shorter checkout line, so kudos to Kroger for using technology to deliver real customer value.

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Bill Davis, Director, MB&G Consulting

The idea of using analytics to prompt coverage seems like a no-brainer - if you read what Kroger employees are saying, there may need to be a few tweaks to make it work in your world.

Follow this link to KrogerForum-Que-vision-nightmares.

But this forum itself is the best news! Hats off to Kroger for trying, and encouraging honest communications. That's the real secret of winning - extreme listening.

Self-checkout will win the larger share of checkouts in the long run, IMHO.

Vahe Katros, Consultant, Plan B

Retail's best answer to slow checkout lines is to train, staff and tool the front end to meet "customer" demand. Relying on equipment and technologies that are somehow understood to be self reliant and infallible is commonplace amongst the store executive management. Placing poorly trained employees in charge of this strategic event only serves to compound the error potential exponentially. This practice continues in the face of climbing shrink numbers and a plethora of customer complaints and/or abandoned carts at the door.

The only thing more perplexing than the continuance of these operational shortfalls is the insistence that the problems are being addressed with the current methodology. Doing the same thing with declining results in this endless recession is economic self destruction.

'gjarnoldjr'

This article reminds me of the fundamental business axiom "you can't manage something that can't be measured."

I have no doubt the technology has helped with the forecasting, but I think putting more emphasis on wait times and making them visible to everyone is as important as all the statistical projections. By making employees and customers both aware that Kroger takes saving time seriously, everyone has a clear objective and good feedback on their performance.

As far as the actual checkout stands themselves, I think the next big thing will be the use of more detailed image processing that allows check stands to identify products from a database of their package images. While barcodes will remain critical for product identification, new scanners will also capture packaging characteristics to further ensure the proper packages are identified. This will make it even more difficult to "fool" scanners by switching barcodes, but it will also make faster scanning possible without the need to orient products as precisely in front of scanner windows. This will eventually lead to shopping carts that can keep running totals just by placing the product in the cart without the need to scan them. Then you will have shopping carts that automatically detach their baskets and can be loaded into the back of an SUV. Customers will just roll out the front door, their cart will be charged to their credit card, and the cart basket will be loaded into the car.

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Bill Bittner, Principal, BWH Consulting

Technology can be a part of better serving a customer as they check out. Kroger's use of an application that efficiently predicts checkout traffic by using analytics on incoming traffic and other relevant data points is definitely innovative.

I see a number of critical comments regarding the use of technology to solve this issue and that surprises. There is often talk that the store employees are too busy doing other tasks to provide good service. Using a tech solution to compliment the human component of customer service is a good step forward. This type of innovation will then give store employees more time to provide the human touch. Can't wait to see this solution spread to other retailers.

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Larry Negrich, Vice President, Marketing, nGage Labs

In what universe does this Kroger system exist/work? Some years ago Kroger advertised extensively that all checkouts would be open in specified "rush" hours. But more often than not it was a false promise. The managers gave the excuse that workers didn't show up, etc. etc. After two complaints by me to the BBB, Kroger agreed to stop those ads.

'schindler'

The system measures their checkout speeds and wait times. It makes the store managers actually pay attention to the front ends because corporate is watching. Far faster checkout than Safeway or Raleys....

'storewanderer'

Someday a customer will take a product off the shelf and place it into a paper bag in a uniquely configured cart created to fit bags efficiently. In essence, the customers will "bag" themselves. They will walk through the checkout line effortlessly without taking anything out of the bag or cart - the computer will pick it all up. They'll show their loyalty card which triggers automatic billing of their credit card that's already in the system. And it will be substantially faster and less wasteful of time.

Never forget, time is currency.

Until then, any technology that allows increasing efficiency is important. It should be noted that there are wide variances in serving customers in grocery stores. It seems Publix and Whole Foods are the darlings of the industry. Yet my experiences are generally the opposite. This is why management at corporate headquarters needs this type of technology.

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Christopher P. Ramey, President, Affluent Insights

The comments are interesting and I think both sides have merit. But they miss a key point; it isn't an either/or scenario - better personnel or technology. The Que system is a very helpful and compelling TOOL. It, like other technology, doesn't absolve the store associates from providing good customer service that improves the shopping experience.

It is also important to remember that this system aids in staffing levels at existing checkouts but another important step is to improve the efficiency of the checkout process itself.

There are several new technologies coming that should help with that in the supermarket including automated scanning and digital watermarking.

Rusty Hastings, Global Retail Industry Marketing, Datalogic

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