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