Has Google solved the problem of long lines at grocery checkouts?

Discussion
Source: Google; Photo: RetailWire
Nov 10, 2017
Matthew Stern

Grocers have tried plenty of tech solutions over the years to shorten the time customers spend in line. But the latest wait-shortening technology is coming not from an individual grocer, but Google’s crowdsourced data.

Google Maps is implementing functionality that uses anonymous crowdsourced location data to let users see estimated wait times at grocery stores, according to Thrillist. Google will roll the technology out before Thanksgiving. The tool for determining the wait at grocery stores is the second of two data-driven crowd size-gauging tools. The first, which launched Tuesday, allows users to determine what the average wait time will be for a table at a given restaurant.

Grocer strategies for limiting customer frustration with lines have taken many forms. Some have tried distraction, installing digital signage to make the time in line pass more quickly. Others, like Hy-Vee, have tried data-driven “traffic lights” that gauge the business of each line and signal each customer to the fastest checkout.

Then there’s Amazon.com, which planned to do away with the grocery line entirely with its automated Amazon Go concept. While some speculate that Amazon may fold the checkout-free functionality into Whole Foods, Amazon Go remains in its beta phase and its official launch has been delayed indefinitely due to technical challenges, according to The Motley Fool.

Amazon’s other big line-killer has also run into problems. As AmazonFresh’s recent exit from numerous ZIP codes seems to indicate, grocery delivery is a tough nut to crack at scale, and may require some big technological leaps to be feasible in many markets. So, long lines at store checkouts may remain a reality for some time to come.
Studies have indicated that wait times exceeding four minutes sometimes lead shoppers to avoid stores at certain times, leave a store or even, in rare cases, stop visiting a store altogether.
The Google Maps feature may serve as an aid to grocers by instructing shoppers to avoid peak shopping times. However, the service may also serve to direct shoppers to competitors where waits are shorter.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you expect a meaningful number of shoppers to take advantage of this new Google Maps feature? If so, how might it affect their shopping behavior? How should retailers prepare for technology that gives shoppers a clearer idea of when it’s best to shop?

Braintrust
"More than anything this seems like Google trying to create relevancy for itself in grocery."
"...seems like a technology that does not really solve a customer problem. Maybe in New York City?"
"Here’s an idea: hire more cashiers."

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21 Comments on "Has Google solved the problem of long lines at grocery checkouts?"

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Rich Kizer
Guest

We have found in focus groups that many customers tend to plan their grocery trip to work into their day schedules. Perhaps finding that wait times are currently light may encourage the trip, and be perceived as a great service. On the other hand, if it warns of a longer wait than is acceptable, knowing that this is the time they wish to shop, does it discourage them from going? Or worse, does it encourage them to spend their time elsewhere?

Art Suriano
BrainTrust
I don’t see this technology as a big success. Your distance from the supermarket you want to go to can affect what the app is telling you. The lines look good on the app now and by the time you get to the store more customers have come in, and the wait is longer. I see solving the problem of long lines in two ways. The first is the old-fashioned method which is the easiest and still, in many ways, the least expensive and that is to open more registers. I sometimes wonder why grocers are so stubborn because what they think they are saving in payroll is costing them much more in sales. The second is mobile scan check-out technology. That’s the big win. We just started using it at our local ShopRite, and my wife loves it. I foresee the day when instead of having to scan each item on your phone, the shopping cart with having a scan strip so that every item placed in the cart will be automatically scanned and should you put something back, it gets automatically deducted from your bill. We’ll get there but, in the meantime, if grocers don’t have the technology,… Read more »
John Karolefski
BrainTrust

This scheme sounds rather complicated, so a meaningful number of shoppers probably won’t take advantage of it. But here’s an idea: hire more cashiers.

Ed Rosenbaum
BrainTrust

I agree with John. But the additional cashiers are usually already there in most larger groceries. All they need to do is call them to a register.

Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

More than anything this seems like Google trying to create relevancy for itself in grocery. To date, it has no meaningful presence there and this feature is likely to fall short of that goal.

Some people are not picky about their grocery purchases and will shop anywhere, some are very picky and have exclusive destinations only, while most are more balanced yet have enough affinity to prefer one supermarket over another. So for the majority of users, switching to another store because lines are too long at their preferred grocer is not so simple. If they, for example, like the breads where they primarily shop, the alternative store won’t deliver. They would be trading wait time for less appealing product and I don’t think many will be willing to do that. In suburban areas, the extra drive time may negate short lines as well and of course, lots of iPhone users do not use Google Maps.

Bottom line: not much to consider on this one.

Bob Amster
BrainTrust

This sounds like a solution looking for a problem. Consumers would much rather be able to checkout quickly when they are able to go shopping than schedule their shopping around Google Maps (unless one has nothing to do all day).

Sterling Hawkins
BrainTrust

I agree that there’s minimal value add here. I don’t see it dramatically altering the behavior of the vast majority of shoppers (at least any time soon). Ultimately, stores need to figure out how to accommodate a volume of shoppers with additional staffing or an easier checkout process.

Steve Montgomery
BrainTrust

Who hates standing in line the most? The customer with just a few items. They are faced with a regular checkout line with customers with heavily loaded carts or express checkout lines where many of the people have exceeded the 10- or 15-item limit.

A great solution is to add more self-checkouts. True there are difficulties with random weight items and items without barcodes but getting the small purchases out of the regular lanes would be a help.

And oh yeah, implement John’s idea: hire more checkers — this from a former stock boy/checker in a supermarket.

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

What John said.

Why are there always 10 checkout lanes and two cashiers?

Larry Negrich
BrainTrust

Crowdsourcing certainly has its application, but grocery shopping is such a convenience-driven activity that I am not sure information on wait times would cause many to adjust plans. Besides the 90 seconds to find the data on Google could be used to stand in line…

Richard J. George, Ph.D.
BrainTrust
In my research on supermarket shoppers, after the “ante,” price, cleanliness and assortment, speedy checkout was the number one desired attribute and one of the least delivered variables. Shoppers didn’t ask for more checkouts or more self-service checkouts, they only asked the stores to get them out quickly. This long-standing problem works against one of the two biggest customer service variables. We know that the longer you keep customers in the store the more they buy. We also know that the faster we get them through any checkout process the faster they will return. It is not surprising that potential solutions are coming from the non-retail sector. Amazon, Google et. al are not saddled by existing paradigms. Even the airlines, who are at the bottom of any customer service rating, have figured out the check-in process. From online check-in through frequent flyer special lines, they have dignified the customer’s time and reduced potential angst. How about a relatively low-tech adaptation of the frequent flyer line? We have shopper data and can identify customers by previous or current purchases. With this info we could offer a designated frequent shopper line(s) or even a reserved checkout time based on their history of… Read more »
C Davis
Guest
11 days 2 hours ago

The methodology to determine wait times seems very iffy. Knowing your location and that you are inside a store or restaurant is one thing, but is Google able to pinpoint the exact location within the stores to know that you are actually waiting in line to checkout? What if you are waiting at the deli counter or standing still having a conversation with someone in the store? Similarly, how does Google know when you actually sit down at your table at a restaurant vs. sitting in the waiting area?

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

We’ve all seen multiple methods of ways to reduce checkout lines. This Google tool may be helpful, however, the physical in-store challenge of checkout lines must still be optimized. I believe that “express” lines for 10 or so items are actually the opposite of what should be done. Why cater to people with only a few items? Those aren’t your most lucrative customers. Why not put “super teams” of three people on a few large order lanes to help unload, scan, tender and bag those typically slow-moving transactions? I’ve seen that work well. Also, I still like the single-line queue to feed to all terminals. This is all low-tech, but I believe process reengineering has a place here.

Peter Luff
BrainTrust

Some may, but its use should not be overestimated. This is task shopping, people tend to fit it in when they can. Let’s face it, shopping for your detergent, etc is not the most exciting thing in the world. Other activities will get preference in daily life such as going to the gym or running the children to their clubs. Grocer retailers need to focus on predictive queue systems to match resource to demand and stay one step ahead of historic systems to ensure for the best possible customer experience they can deliver, even at the busiest times, so people don’t learn to avoid their stores!

Adrian Weidmann
BrainTrust

While there may be a select number of “digital natives” that may actually use this capability as part of their shopping journey, I suspect it’ll be a relatively few. Shoppers are unlikely to plan their shopping journey to cater to a retailer’s workflow. How about adding another cashier?

And by the way, trying to rationalize the investment in digital signage to “reduce the perceived wait time” is (and was) simply lame. How many times have you EVER seen all the 30 cash wraps available at a Target store in use? Never! I would love to hear from someone out there as to why that makes any sense or what the rationale is.

Jeff Miller
BrainTrust

I love Google. Showing the wait times will probably help with some retailers overall visibility in search but this seems like a technology that does not really solve a customer problem. Maybe in New York City? Are people really planning their shopping trips around wait times of lines? Parking spaces available could help but lines change within the time you are already in the store based on foot traffic, slow retail associates, computer issues, someone needing to run back and pick up something and so many more factors.

Fun with technology and cool, but not a real “moonshot” for Google.

Ed Rosenbaum
BrainTrust

John had the right idea, have more cashier’s available. My take on this is Google trying to get in another silo. I don’t see it working for other than Google getting added name recognition. Most shoppers have a plan and schedule. They usually know what time and day works best for them and they stick to it. You can drive by the store on your way home and see how the in-store traffic is by the number of cars on the parking lot. This is not rocket science.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest
11 days 51 minutes ago

A solution in search of a problem? Not exactly, but I’m dubious of its usefulness beyond the usual niche market. People tend to shop where and when they do because it works for them; if other choices worked as well they’d already be using them. Restaurant visits, OTOH, have considerably more flexibility and the app might prove useful there … might.

Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust
Checkout continues to be a major pain point for shoppers. From Google’s perspective I’m sure this feature made sense given their usual data-driven approach. Google maps already shows you time plots of the busiest times of day for most business locations. This is just an extension of that for grocery stores. I see this providing limited value, however, most people plan their visit to the grocery store based on many time of day factors. If Google told you the checkout lines would be longer than usual at that time, your choices become a) go to another grocery store — this choice is limited based on your location as you may or may not have nearby access to another alternative, and b) decide to wait and go at a different time. Shoppers will choose based on their situation, but some shoppers have a brand/product preference and simply won’t go to another store, therefore they’ll just wait. In that scenario, what’s the benefit to the grocer? I think the real answer to this challenge lies in the technology grocers need to make checkout go away completely as a separate process. Until that’s ready, the focus should be on proper staffing. I’m with… Read more »
Michael La Kier
BrainTrust

The big takeaway here is just that — a takeaway of power via better information from the retailer to the shopper. Long gone are the days when a retailer “owns” the real estate — the ground and air in which they operate. Not sure of the success from a consumer/shopper standpoint, but it continues the trend towards shopper empowerment fueled by data. For shoppers on a very quick fill-in trip this may add value. For shoppers doing longer more traditional stock-up trips, the lines fluctuate greatly while they shop, so it likely won’t matter to them.

Kenneth Leung
BrainTrust

Interesting. It sounds like they are trying to incorporate Waze traffic reporting type technology into retail. I am wondering if it is less of a wait time response technology for retailers, but more of a trip planning aid to improve the travel experience. Maybe the point isn’t about improving the wait time, but to improve the usability of Google Map users to determine whether they want to stop to shop on the way home or to work based on the wait time.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"More than anything this seems like Google trying to create relevancy for itself in grocery."
"...seems like a technology that does not really solve a customer problem. Maybe in New York City?"
"Here’s an idea: hire more cashiers."

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